Cramps can last anywhere from a few seconds to a quarter of an hour, occasionally longer – and it’s not uncommon for a cramp to recur several times before finally going away. The cramp may involve a part of a muscle, the entire muscle or several muscles acting together.
A muscle cramp is a forcibly contracted muscle that does not relax. Any muscle under voluntary control can cramp. Cramps of the extremities are very common, especially the legs and feet, and particularly the calf. A nervous tic such as on the eyelids is also a type of cramp, or muscular spasm.
A cramp is painful, often severely so, and usually causes the sufferer to stop whatever they’re doing and seek relief. Severe cramps may be associated with soreness and swelling, which can occasionally persist up to several days after the cramp has subsided. At the time of cramping, the knotted muscle will bulge, feel very firm and may be tender.
Nutrient deficiencies: A lack of certain vitamins and minerals have been associated with cramps. Calcium and magnesium deficiencies increase the excitability of both the nerve endings and the muscles they stimulate, predisposing the muscle to a spasm.
Low levels of calcium and magnesium are common in older people, during pregnancy and any circumstance that decreases the availability of these minerals in body fluids. This can include diuretics, hyperventilation, excessive vomiting, poor diet and poor function of the parathyroid gland (as it regulates calcium balance).
Smart Nutrition’s Nutreval Screen gives the most comprehensive overview of your nutrient status and can flag up key deficiencies that may be exacerbating your symptoms. A nutritional therapist can then provide diet and supplement recommendations to help reduce the incidence of cramps if you would like..
Dehydration: the depletion of body fluids that results from poor fluid intake or regular use of diuretics (medicine that promote urination) may predispose you to cramps.
Sports and warm weather can also cause excessive fluid and electrolyte loss via perspiration.
Electrolytes are constituents of the blood that help control fluid balance, so this kind of dehydration is even more likely to lead to cramps. For many people, drinking the correct amount of water is difficult – commonly because they’re not absorbing it properly. To prevent cramps, it’s vital to replace not just fluids but also the electrolytes.
If you regularly suffer from cramps, a nutritional therapist can show you techniques to gradually increase you water intake whilst ensuring you properly absorb it – making drinking regularly an easy habit to stick to.
Medication: many medicines can cause cramps. Diuretic medications deplete both body fluid and electrolytes. Certain medications for Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, Parkinson’s disease, angina, high blood pressure, asthma and to control cholesterol levels can also lead to cramps.
If you regularly use these medications and suffer from cramps, a nutritional therapist will be able to help you manage this side effect – and may in some cases be able to support you through your underlying condition, reducing your need for medication.
Poor circulation: poor circulation to the legs results in inadequate oxygen to the muscle tissue, which can then lead to cramping or a numb, tingling sensation, especially in the lower legs.
It’s important to see your doctor if you have pain like this, as it can be caused by a condition called peripheral vascular disease – a gradual thickening and hardening of the walls of the arteries. This is common in diabetics, smokers and people with cardiovascular conditions such as high blood pressure or cholesterol.
If you suffer from any of these conditions and want to take preventative steps, a nutritional therapist can put together a specific protocol for you to address the underlying condition as well as improving your general circulation.
Muscular overuse: muscle fatigue from exercise or overuse of a muscle results in the build up a chemical called lactic acid. This occurs when the body cannot meet the oxygen demand of the heavily working muscle. Lactic acid is known to be a contributing factor in cramps.
If you regularly experience exercise related cramps, a nutritional therapist will be able to advise you on training techniques and supplements which can help reduce lactic acid build up and muscle fatigue. Not only will this reduce cramps, it can also help improve performance.
Low thyroid function: the thyroid gland produces hormones which control how quickly nutrients are converted into energy and how efficiently food is used by the body. If your thyroid gland is not functioning optimally, muscles fatigue quickly and cramps become much more likely.
Other symptoms of low thyroid function include tiredness, cold hands and feet, weight gain and depression. If you think hypothyroidism may be a factor in your cramps, consider a Thyroid Test. Smart Nutrition can use the results to put together a diet and supplement plan to boost thyroid function and reduce cramps.
Arsenic toxicity: muscle cramps are one of the main symptoms of arsenic toxicity. Arsenic can be found in pesticides, laundry aids, tobacco smoke, smog, bone meal, dolomite, kelp, table salt, beer, seafood and drinking water. People who work in pesticide production, agricultural insecticide spraying, copper smelting, mining, sheep dipping and metallurgical industries are at an increased risk of developing an arsenic toxicity.
If you’re concerned about arsenic exposure, a Hair Mineral Analysis will assess your levels. Our nutritional therapists can then advise you on key dietary changes and supplements to assist toxin removal.
Injury: sometimes the muscles surrounding an injury such as a broken bone or strained muscle may spasm as a protective mechanism. The spasm minimises movement and stabilises the area of injury. This kind of cramp normally disappears once the injury resolves.