Written by: Julie Tang, MS, RDN, CNSC
Experiencing muscle cramps is often a painful experience that most of us cannot forget. It can happen at any time of the day even though many reports experiencing them while sleeping, stretching, or exercising.
A muscle cramp is the result of a sudden and involuntary contraction or spasm of one or more of your muscles. The muscle tenses up, shooting mild or excruciating pain that can last from several seconds to minutes. Muscle cramps commonly occur in the calf and feet but they can also occur in many other locations on the body such as the back, abdominal walls, and thighs.
While the exact cause of muscle cramps is largely unknown, what we do know is there are contributing factors that increase a person’s susceptibly to muscle cramps (3).
These factors are dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, intense exercise, and hormonal imbalance. While anyone can get a muscle cramp, certain groups of people including athletes, older adults over the age of 60, and pregnant women have a higher prevalence.
Some medical conditions that involve neuromuscular abnormalities or the use of some medications can also put individuals at higher risk. Acute or chronic nutritional deficiencies can also increase the risk of muscle cramps. Supplements may be helpful if you are particularly deficient in a nutrient or vitamin. However, depending on the degree of deficiency and advice from your provider, supplements may not always be necessary as many nutrients are present in a variety of foods.
Treatment and prevention
Once a muscle cramp strikes, it can feel extremely painful, making it hard to move positions. Slowly, try the following techniques immediately to help relieve them. Gently stretch the area that is affected and at the same time, massage the area. Consider using a warm compress to the area or taking a warm shower to help. If muscle cramps continue to occur on the regular basis, it is best to get an evaluation from your provider to address any potential underlying causes.
Knowing how to treat a muscle cramp when it occurs is useful, however, most of us wish to prevent muscle cramps before they happen. The first steps to prevention are to stay hydrated and eat a balanced diet with a focus on essential minerals also known as electrolytes (sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium). Not having enough water causes dehydration which contributes to poor blood circulation and muscle cells unable to get enough oxygen. This makes muscles more susceptible to muscle cramps.
A well-planned, balanced diet is particularly important when you exercise for longer or more intense sessions. If you are sweating, you are losing electrolytes and water and if they do not get replaced, it could result in more frequent muscle cramps. One study found that when athletes rehydrated with a beverage containing electrolytes after intense exercise, they were less susceptible to muscle cramps, compared with when they hydrated with regular water (2). Along with electrolytes, studies have suggested that certain Vitamin B’s, Vitamin D, and Vitamin E may also help with muscle cramps, but more conclusive data is needed (1)(3). Hydration and diet can be effective ways to prevent muscle cramps, but don’t forget to also get adequate rest and incorporate regular stretching.
Whether you experience an occasional, random muscle cramp or you are an individual who falls under the category of populations who are more prone to muscle cramps, prevention is important. Get started right away by first assessing your diet and hydration status. Are you getting enough foods rich in electrolytes in your diet? Do you drink enough water throughout the day? If you find that you may not be getting enough of these components in your diet, check out the key nutrients to pay attention to and find out what foods sources you can incorporate into your diet to help reduce the frequency of muscle cramps:
- Water: Dehydration from inadequate water intake, water loss from urine or sweat can disrupt the electrolyte balance in the body triggering a muscle cramp. In addition to drinking water, intake of coconut water and fruits and vegetables with high water content may help. These include watermelon, cucumbers, celery, lettuce, tomatoes, pineapple, blueberries, and strawberries.
- Sodium: Sodium helps maintain normal fluid balance and regulate blood pressure. It also works with other electrolytes for proper muscle contraction and nervous system function. Sweating can cause a loss of sodium as well as water. Foods rich in salt include pickled foods, cheese, celery, beets, carrots, Swiss chard, pesto, canned fish, sauerkraut, and olives.
- Potassium: This is essential in aiding communication between muscles and nerves for the proper function of the muscular and nervous system. Foods rich in potassium include avocado, banana, citrus, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, watermelon, dairy products, and spinach.
- Magnesium: Magnesium is used for muscle contraction and relaxation. Foods rich in magnesium include avocado, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, dark chocolate, tofu, whole grains, bananas, and dark leafy greens (collard greens, broccoli, kale, bok choy, spinach).
- Calcium: Calcium plays an important role in muscle contraction, transmitting messages through the nerves, and the release of hormones. Foods rich in calcium include milk and milk products, tofu, edamame, dark leafy greens (collard greens, broccoli, kale, bok choy, spinach), and canned fish such as sardines and salmon.
- Gröber, U., Schmidt, J. and Kisters, K. Magnesium in Prevention and Therapy. Nutrients. 2015 Sep; 7(9): 8199–8226.
- Lau, W.Y., Kato, H. and Nosaka. K. Water intake after dehydration makes muscles more susceptible to cramp but electrolytes reverse that effect. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2019; 5(1): e000478.
- Shahraki, AD. Effects of vitamin E, calcium carbonate and milk of magnesium on muscular cramps in pregnant women. Journal of Medical Sciences. 2006; 6(6), 979‐983.