Muscle Cramp: That debilitating moment when your body seems to be in open rebellion against you. Most of us have experienced cramp.  As much as 95% of us will have it at some point in our lives, and it can strike whilst practicing karate. Thats REALLY messes with the quality of techniques!

What are the symptoms of Cramps? 

If you have to ask, you have yet to suffer from it - yet.

Cramps are painful; “Stop-everything-and-think-of-nothing-else” painful.  The sufferer is unable to use the affected muscle(s) while it is cramping. The muscle can be sore, it can visibly bulge, feel very firm and can be tender to the touch.

A cramp can hit a small part of the muscle, all of it, or even a group of muscles. When just a few fibres of the muscle contract involuntarily, it is in ”spasm”. You can sometimes see these spasms as the muscle seems to “dance” under the skin. If that becomes more forceful and sustained, it becomes a cramp.  So if you feel a muscle start to spasm, treat it as an early warning sign. 

What should you do if you get cramp?

Stretching the affected muscle can ease most cramps. For cramps in the feet or legs, walking around can do this stretching. If you are prone to muscle cramp, it’s worth rehearsing a stretching procedure before it happens. This has two benefits; first you know exactly what to do if you get cramp, and second the very act of stretching helps prevent cramping in the first place.

GENTLE massage of the muscle will often help it relax, as will applying ice to the muscle or warming it with a heating pad. Yes, a hot bath is a nice way to relax the muscle (adding Epsom salts is also supposed to help).

There is not really a medicine to take to relieve ordinary cramp as most cramps subside before the medicine could be absorbed to have any impact.

So what is actually happening?

Most authorities agree that the cause of cramps is “hyper-excitability of the nerves that stimulate the muscle”. 

I’ll try to explain this in English.

Here’s an analogy for you:  A doorbell sounds when you send it the signal to ring by pushing the button. It stops when you no longer push it. In the same way, a muscle contracts when you send it the signal to do so, and relaxes when you stop sending that signal. 

Sometimes our doorbell sticks. Although the signal is no longer being sent, the button gets stuck and the blasted thing keeps ringing. It’s like that for the muscle. The muscle “gets its wires crossed”  and keeps getting the signal to contract, and contract and contract…

So if you suspect a muscle is about to cramp – try avoid using that muscle, don’t send it the “sticking doorbell” signal.  

What causes cramp?

The most common cause seems to be dehydration. If you are competing, or training hard (as you should be), you can become dehydrated.  Obviously the warmer the conditions, the more fluid is lost.

There are a number of chemicals you need to avoid the muscles from cramping.  These include sodium (low sodium levels are often a result of poor hydration).  Low levels of calcium, magnesium or potassium can cause cramps. Low potassium levels are also associated with muscle weakness. 

Low calcium levels are also believed to be a cause of night-time cramps. 

Vitamin deficiency, for example vitamins B1, B5, B6 and D can also be a problem. Vitamin E has been said to help minimize cramp occurrence. 

Some medicines can cause cramping (diuretics that can lead to rapidly reduced hydration levels for example). Coming off some medicines may also lead to cramps.  Any medication and its impact on cramping are best discussed with your Doctor. 

How to prevent cramps.

First keep your fluid levels up. You need to make sure your body has the chemicals needed for correct muscle function. Try to get the right quantities of these.

Magnesium is present in many foods - greens, grains, meat and fish, bananas, apricots, nuts, and soybeans.  Potassium is famously available in bananas. 

Replacement of lost electrolytes (sodium /potassium etc) is beneficial.

Some reports suggest eating salty snacks to replace lost salts in sweating, or perhaps to stimulate thirst and promote the retention of fluid. 

Some recommend drinking tonic water. Tonic water contains traces of Quinine, which can reduce the excitability of the nerves.  A glass of tonic water will have about 20 mg of quinine, which is considerably less than would be used medically. But quinine also has some nasty side effects. 

Authorities recommend stretching before and after exercise. It doesn’t have to be painful to be effective. Make sure this forms part of a comprehensive warm up and cool down routine. Giving your body as much opportunity to prepare for the work ahead is sensible.

Good hydration before, during and after training is very important. If you allow your weight to drop through excessive fluid loss, you are heading for trouble! The goal is to not lose more than 2% of bodyweight. Depending how hard you work, the temperature, humidity etc you can lose between 0.4 to 1.8 litres per hour. Obviously you need to try to replace that. “Isotonic” drinks, although sometimes pricey, contain a good balance of nutrients and minerals to help your body recover. 

Get hydrated before you start, prepare your body with intakes of fluid for three or four hours prior to the exercise. 

During exercise, keep hydrating. The amount needed depends on you. Experience will help optimise your intake. Weighing yourself will indicate the amount of fluid you are expending. One litre of fluid weighs 1kg. The starting point for marathon runners is to drink between 0.4 to 0.8 litres per hour, but that is just a guide and your fluid intake should be based on your own weight loss. 

Cramps are something that everyone wants to avoid, and with good preparation, and monitoring your own activity, you can minimise the risk.