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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What is the Best Way to Stop a Cramping Muscle?


This article is based off of a continuing education module I recently completed and the information was so interesting around the common thoughts and practices in treating muscle cramps that I had to share it.


It has long been thought that the cause of muscle cramping in athletics or any athletic related activity was due to dehydration and a loss of electrolytes.  There have been many companies that have made their business (and fortune in some cases) based around this idea that you need to replace everything you lose and that prevents muscle cramping.  While the idea of being hydrated and replacing sodium can have positive effects it isn't necessarily for the rehydration reason.  More on that later.

The presentation reviewed all the research looking at dehydration and muscle cramping and if hydration was truly effective in preventing cramping.  The theory that most people have learned, practiced and sold sports drinks off of is the Dehydration & Electrolyte Imbalance Theory.  When all of this information was reviewed it was found that most studies that looked at people had a history of cramps and lost significant fluids and electrolytes that often times they didn't cramp during the study and so no change was seen.  If they did happen to cramp in almost all cases there was no significant difference between the people that did cramp and the ones that didn't in terms of hydration and electrolyte status.  The claim that higher sodium losses in 'crampers' is based on the data of only 23 people.  In all the research that has been done and all the people that are active, this number is way to small to make a cause and effect statement.

So what is the answer for preventing and treating cramping?  Unfortunately there isn't a set answer for this yet but it has been fairly well disproven that hydration isn't the best answer.  Utilizing stretching and e-stim (TENs) gets you the quickest and best results when it comes to treating cramps. The thought behind this is that by putting the muscle on a stretch activates the golgi-tendon organs (GTOs) that then send an inhibitory message to the spinal cord that can calm the muscle and get it to relax.  The same thought process comes with using TENS on the muscle-tendon unit in order to stimulate the GTOs and facilitate an inhibition message to the muscle.


Before we write off hydration (or argue back) it is still extremely important that you focus on it and replacing electrolytes.  Even if it hasn't been proven to be the treatment for cramping hydration can help prevent the onset of fatigue which can be a major risk factor in cramping risk.  If you have someone who continues to cramp and does so in the same muscle take a look beyond hydration.  If it happens to be their hamstring make sure they aren't over utilizing their hamstring and not making enough use of their glute when they are performing.


Cramping is painful, debilitating and a tough 'injury' to deal with but it isn't as simple as dehydration and electrolyte loss.  Look deeper into the reasons especially someone who has reoccurring problems.  And if you do cramp, your best bet is still to get it on a quick but steady and comfortable stretch.

Credit: Kevin Miller PhD-Central Michigan University
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