Paspa Physical Therapy

When To Worry About Leg Cramps

What Is A Leg Cramp?

A leg cramp often called a charley horse, is a sudden sustained and involuntary contraction of the muscle fibers. These cramps can be exercise-related or non-exercise-related. Cramps arising from exercise are most common, and they generally stem from overuse of the leg muscles.

Studies show that electrolyte imbalances (mineral magnesium) can cause leg cramps. Still, there is also strong evidence that they are caused by central nervous system (CNS) fatigue which leads to hyperactivity of the motoneurons.

Muscle cramps occur because of hyper-excited nerves called alpha motoneurons. These nerve cells project from the spinal cord directly to the skeletal muscle fibers. 

When these motoneurons and muscle fiber go haywire, the motor unit malfunctions causing a cramp, in addition, muscles can be made to cramp by electrically stimulating motoneurons.

African American man rubbing his aching leg because of a cramp - PaspaPT

What Causes The Sudden Leg Cramps At Night?

Nocturnal calf cramps are very common and can awaken you suddenly from sleep with painful spasms. This is because your legs, especially your calf’s work hard all day — every time you’re on your feet or walking, those motor neurons are firing.

At night, the brain changes the amount of neurotransmitters it releases. These neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine, regulate the transmission of signals between neurons. In addition, they help modulate all brain activity, including activity in the spinal cord and in motor neurons.

It’s possible this change in neurotransmitters makes misfiring more likely, which would explain why charley horses are common while sleeping.

What To Do When Cramping?

If you feel a muscle cramp in your leg…

  • Stop your workout and find a position that feels more comfortable. 
  • Stretch the affected area for 15 to 20 seconds or until cramping symptoms are relieved. 

Even after muscle cramps subside, exercise should be paused to allow the muscle and central nervous system to recover. In addition, studies have shown that leg cramps can be treated through home remedies.

One common home remedy has been ingesting pickle juice. At first, the pickle juice remedy baffled scientists. However, further study has shown that there is a mouth-to-spine connection.

For example, certain spices and other natural ingredients may be good anti-cramp treatments. Spices such as capsaicin in red peppers activate specific membrane channels in sensory nerves called TRP channels. 

These channels found in the mouth and throat connect to the spinal cord and indirectly inhibit hyper-excited alpha motoneurons.

Athletes who suffer from leg cramps may want to ingest a specially formulated spicy beverage before exercise. Research has demonstrated that the frequency and duration of cramping were reduced after drinking this beverage.

When To Worry?

Leg cramps are sometimes side effects of more serious health conditions. This is rare, but if home treatment does not work, seek advice from a doctor.

Causes of these prolonged cramps could be…
  • narrow arteries which prevent adequate blood supply
  • nerve damage due to compressed nerves in the lumbar spine
  • dietary imbalance resulting in a mineral depletion

It is best to seek medical advice from a health care professional if you are in continuous pain, have severe discomfort, your leg becomes swollen or red, or your cramps are not associated with exercise or overuse.

Risk Factors

Certain factors can cause a person to be more likely to experience cramps.

You may experience more frequent leg cramps if you…
  • are pregnant
  • are older or have diminished muscle mass
  • have a health condition (liver disease, high cholesterol levels, diabetes, obesity)
  • take certain medications, especially diuretics

Preventative Measures

You may not be able to stop leg cramps altogether, but you can make a difference if you perform calf muscle stretches and other flexibility exercises that lengthen the large muscles of the legs.

Warming up and cooling down with light cardio and flexibility exercises for a few minutes before and after strenuous movement will ease the muscles in and out of the activity. If you experience nocturnal leg cramps (cramps while sleeping), make sure to stretch before bed.

Other preventative measures include:

  • staying hydrated throughout the day
  • avoiding excessive exercise, steep hills or stairs
  • wearing comfortable shoes (avoid high heels.) 

To learn more about leg cramps, contact Paspa Physical Therapy today.

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