When it comes to being active, sprains and strains are common unwelcome guests. However, there’s another ailment that may derail your efforts — muscle cramps. Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps (EAMC) can bring down your game. These intense cramps are a roadblock to regular muscle movement. It’s like a donkey that stops in the road, refusing to move another inch. When you’re relying on your muscles to lunge, stretch, and offer support, EAMC can quickly drive you to the sidelines.
EAMC is very common. Frequently affected areas include the hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves, but EAMC can occur in any muscle, bringing stiffness, soreness, and pain along for the ride.
It affects both sides of the body and can be so intense that an acutely cramped muscle can often be seen through a visual inspection. A trained eye can spy the balled up muscle as you walk across the room.
What Causes EAMC?
We’d love to give you a definitive answer here, but honestly, the medical community doesn’t know what causes it. Research studies spanning the past 50 years have searched and evaluated, only to find that muscle cramps affect all ages, races, and types of athletes. The type of sport and duration do not appear to be factors either.
One strong correlation found in these studies was the higher incidence of acute athlete cramping in hot climates. It’s believed that the effects of dehydration, including losing electrolytes, may be to blame. When the body’s nerve endings aren’t properly nourished with calcium, magnesium, sodium, etc, they fail to function properly, which in turn interrupts the messages sent to muscles. An overactive nerve results in overstimulation of the muscle, which leaves it in a constant state of contraction — also known as a cramp. This is merely a theory though since athletes in colder climates also get cramps and rehydrating doesn’t seem to help.
Another theory is that intense exercise sends a constant message to the muscle, basically shifting it into persistent go mode. In other words, the message telling the muscle to relax gets intercepted, resulting in cramping. Of course, this is inconsistent since many intense athletes push to their limits and don’t experience cramps at all.
Another common hypothesis revolves around improper conditioning with the thought being that muscle cramps occur because of fatigue and muscle injury. However studies in a controlled environment with participants performing the same activity under the same conditions failed to produce anything more than random exercise-associated muscle cramps.
The Role of Stretching
Experiments are difficult to set up in order to study muscle cramps. After all, they don’t occur on demand and are not repeatable at request either. So while we might not understand what causes them, the one consistently effective solution is stretching. It’s not understood why it works. Perhaps it creates an override for the message that says to contract. Maybe stretching releases chemicals that result in a message to relax the muscle. Whatever it is, when EAMC strikes, finding the right stretch is the most effective tool you have.
An important note is the EAMC often does not strike while you’re exercising. More often than not, it hits up to eight hours later when you’re trying to relax or participate in a different type of activity. There’s optimistic hope that stretching at the end of your racquetball game or spin class can help keep the acute cramping from creeping in. Also be sure to keep hydrated whether exercising or not. If you’ve tried reducing muscle cramps on your own, but haven’t found the right solution, head on it to Encore Physical Therapy to see how we can help.
You can find further reading on the research here.