What is the latest evidence on preventing or treating muscle cramps?
Especially in the south, cramping during practice or competition can have a negative impact on athletic performance. There are several theories regarding what causes cramps, and even more opinions on how to prevent or “cure” cramps once they occur. Two main hypotheses exist regarding the cause for cramps, including electrolyte/hydration issues and lack of conditioning/neuromuscular training. Research is still ongoing on these topics, but in the meantime, what can we focus on to prevent and treat muscle cramps?
-Focus on hydrating properly before, during, and after activity. If you plan to exercise for a long duration and/or in a warm environment, this is especially important. You should consume drinks containing electrolytes before and during activity. After activity, it is important to replace the fluid and electrolytes lost in your sweat during activity.
-Focus on eating full, well-balanced meals. Proper diet, including reasonable amounts of salt/electrolytes, helps fuel your muscles during exercise.
-Consider the risk factors. If you have cramped before, you are at an increased risk of cramping in the future. Some people are heavy sweaters or people who sweat out more electrolytes than others and thus must compensate for this by increasing their electrolyte and water intake. Additional risk factors include muscular fatigue; exercising for a long duration without properly replacing fluids and electrolytes, and wearing added layers of clothing or equipment.
-Consider acclimatization. Some sports require acclimatization periods, particularly when it is hot out, for the body to adapt to exercise in the heat. These adaptations, including changes to your sweat levels and sweat content as your body adjusts to increased activity or activity in the heat, are extremely important for sport.
-Consider conditioning levels. Ensure proper conditioning has taken place to train your muscles for extended exercise such as practice or competition. It is important to use workouts to gradually ramp up exercise duration and intensity over time so that your body can learn to adjust to increased activity levels to properly manage electrolytes and other fuel our muscles use during exercise.
-Remove the athlete from activity
-Briefly stretch and massage the involved muscle area
-Encourage the athlete to flex and extend muscle when able (particularly walking, if the cramp is in the lower limbs), to encourage muscle movement and replenishment of nutrients & electrolytes into tissues.
-Rehydrate, particularly with an electrolyte drink or salt solution (for a salt solution, the Korey Stringer Institute recommends using a half teaspoon of salt dissolved in 16-20 ounces of water)
-Some recent research suggests that for some athletes a strong stimulus, particularly a strong taste (hot/spicy, tangy, or unpleasant flavors) may shock the nervous system and stop cramping – but more research is needed
As you can see, there are a variety of important factors to consider when trying to prevent and treat cramps. More research is needed to determine the causes and best treatments for cramps, but the tips above should be a good start!
Blog information by: Jade Wanger MS, LAT, ATC - George Walton Academy - GA High School