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Let’s Talk About Muscle Cramps

One of the most commonly seen and experienced sports ailments is the muscle cramp or “charley horse”, and it remains one of the least understood. We’ve all seen athletes who drop to the ground and writhe in pain and we fear the worst – only to be greatly relieved to see the trainer run onto the field, grab a leg and stretch it. Someone mutters “It’s only a cramp” and everyone immediately feels better – except for the athlete in agony on the ground.

A muscle cramp is an unrelenting contraction of a muscle that we can normally control voluntarily. Something triggers it to contract involuntarily and we are unable to relax it. All muscles are at some risk, but the cramps most often seen in athletes generally occur in large muscles that cross two joints. Examples are the calf muscles, the quadriceps (on the front of the thigh), and the hamstrings (on the back of the thigh).

People at risk are those with baseline muscle weakness and those who are under-conditioned relative to the level of exertion they attempt. People start to lose muscle mass at age 40, so cramping is common in exercisers over 65 unless they build up their level of conditioning slowly. Older athletes (the “Boomers”) also lose some of the ability to sense thirst and to respond to heat. This puts them at risk for dehydration and loss of body salts, and this is felt to predispose to cramping.

Younger athletes tend to cramp more in the preseason before they’ve conditioned themselves to midseason form. Interestingly, cramping can take many forms. That little tic we occasionally feel at the corner of our eyes when we’re tired belongs to the same family of muscle afflictions as the calf cramp that drops the football player for up to 15 minutes in the middle of a game. Both situations represent muscles protesting the workload they’re asked to carry.

Treatment is simple: First, stop the activity. Then, gently stretch the involved muscle and perhaps massage it. Apply heat to tense, tight muscles and apply cold to sore, tender muscles. And, of course, rehydrate.

Obviously, prevention is the key to avoiding the problem and maximizing sports participation. Listen to your coaches and put as much effort into stretching and conditioning as you do into your play. Develop strength and endurance because

muscles cramp when they are fatigued. In heat, stay up on your fluids and salts. Electrolyte solutions such as Gatorade were developed with cramps in mind.

As with many other sports afflictions, warming up before participating in a game and drinking liquids is the key to avoiding loss of time from your sport. See you next month.

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