You're jogging along on your morning run and suddenly your leg clenches in a muscle spasm and the workout is over. Or you wake up from a sound sleep with a sharp pain in your calf or foot. Getting a charley horse is no fun -- the cramp may not release easily or quickly and it will definitely stop you in your tracks. Understanding why the muscle contracted is one key to knowing what to do about it.
Anatomy of a Muscle Cramp
A sudden muscle tightening, or cramp, happens when a skeletal muscle -- typically one that connects two joints -- strongly and unexpectedly contracts. A cramp that hits your leg can affect the gastrocnemius muscle along the back of your calf, your quads or hamstrings, instep or toes. The contraction may target all of the muscles in a group, an isolated muscle or even part of a muscle -- in every case, the discomfort is acute and persists. Causes for a charley horse include overexertion, fatigue, dehydration, poor nutrition and sedentary behavior. A muscle can tighten up when you're exercising, sitting at your desk or sleeping. The muscle fiber shortens, ratcheting up tension as it steadily contracts. When the tight muscle forms a knot, you can tear the fiber by forcing a stretch. If possible, let the muscle spasm ease before stretching to relieve the cramp.
Hydration and Electrolytes
When you sweat, you lose electrolytes: sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Intense exercise or a workout in extreme heat can lead to electrolyte imbalance and cramped muscles. A muscle spasm from dehydration and electrolyte imbalance signals your need for more fluid. Drinking water may help a mild imbalance that causes leg muscles to tighten but, for prolonged exercise, such as a game in the afternoon sun, a long run, an endurance event or a vigorous class, choose a sports drink that restores electrolytes. Replenishing lost potassium, calcium, sodium and other minerals allows muscles to contract and release, transmits nerve impulses and lets cells work properly, contributing to the relaxation and prevention of leg cramps. Bananas are an easily digested, rich source of potassium that dancers and other athletes eat before games and performances to lower the risk for leg cramps.
Stretching may relieve the cramp by gently lengthening and restoring flexibility to tightened muscles. Don't ever force a tight muscle into a stretch because you can tear muscle fiber and cause a serious injury. Do try a calf stretch for tightness along the back of the lower leg. Place your palms against a wall, elbows bent, front foot close to the wall, back leg extended, both feet flat on the ground. Keep the back heel lowered as you bend the front knee and lean into the wall, stretching the back of the extended leg. Fifteen or 20 five-second toe raises can loosen tight feet and calves. Balancing on one leg while grasping the ankle of the other leg and bringing your foot to your butt can release quad muscles. Slow forward bends stretch hamstrings. Try walking slowly or jiggling the cramping leg.
Massage and Myofascial Release
Massage the tight muscle until you feel the cramp relax, then apply heat to stimulate blood flow and release all of the tension, or ice to bring down inflammation and soothe soreness. If you can, gently work the tight leg through its normal range of motion to restore flexibility. Self-myofascial release combines several types of massage. It provides pressure that relaxes connective tissue, slowly stretches and lengthens the affected muscle, and relieves trigger points for pain. Rest the tight muscle on a sturdy foam roller and let your body weight compress the spot, helping to break up a knot and restore normal blood flow to the area. Roll very slowly back and forth on the sore place to ease the clenched fibers and end the contraction. For a small area, such as your instep, putting your weight on a tennis ball and rolling your foot over it can relieve the cramp.
- ACE Fitness: Why Do Muscles Tighten Up?
- Sports Injury Clinic: Gastrocnemius Stretch / Calf Stretch
- Disabled World: What are Cramps? How to Prevent Cramps
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Muscle Cramp
- Dance Magazine: Eating and Drinking for Energy
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Massage
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .