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Ease the Pain of Muscle Cramps

You're on the final leg of your daily run when a cramp strikes your lower leg. Your stride shortens and you begin to limp, hands reaching toward your calf.

What causes this painful problem that's sometimes called a Charley Horse? Experts aren't exactly sure.

Cramps can occur during exercise when a muscle becomes tired from repeated activity and when there's a salt/fluid imbalance. The muscle suddenly contracts, often causing a very tight ball or knot.

Some cramps occur at night, long after exercise. Cramps do not mean there is a problem with the muscle itself; rather, experts believe they happen when the fluid and electrolyte imbalance catches up to you or when a nerve overstimulates a muscle. This can also occur without exercise, as a symptom of some diseases or drugs, and for other, unknown reasons.

Most exercise-related muscle cramps affect the foot or calf because they're often in repeated motion.

Being in good condition can reduce the risk of cramps. If you get frequent muscle cramps or if you just started getting them and you can't point to a particular exercise, see your health care provider.

To head off cramps

  • The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends doing flexibility exercises before and after you work out to stretch the muscle groups most prone to cramping.

  • Drink plenty of fluids. That's even more important if you're working out for a long time or it's hot and humid. Unless you have a health condition or take medication that requires you to restrict fluids, you should drink enough fluids during the day so that you have to urinate every two to four hours. During long periods of exercise, ideally you should drink 8 ounces every 20 minutes. When you urinate, your urine should be a pale color.

  • Stay in condition. Increase the amount and vigor of exercise slowly, over weeks and months. Talk with your health care provider first.

To treat cramps

  • If you're working out, stop at once.

  • Massage the muscle that's cramping.

  • Apply warmth to tense, cramped muscles and cold to sore, tender muscles.

  • Gently stretch the muscle. For example, sit with your leg outstretched, extend your hands forward, and pull your toes back toward your knees.