Understanding muscle cramping

Understanding muscle cramping

I shared an article earlier this week from Maughan & Shirreffs (2019) that attempted to uncover the causes and treatment of exercise induced muscle cramps. I thought I would use this opportunity to elaborate further. I would encourage you to comment on your experiences with cramping and treatments you have found effective.

Most of us have experienced cramping. The severity varies greatly along with its duration. It has been exceedingly difficult to study the effects and treatments for cramps in a clinical setting because it is notoriously unpredictable. However, common risk factors include endurance sports, hot weather, pre-season training (low fitness, high intensity), presence of fatigue and a positive family history.

It seems there are many different types of cramps provoked by different situations. The two types we can currently discuss from the literature are:

1.) Disturbance of hydration & electrolyte balance: This could be running on a hot day, or someone working all day in the sun (eg. industrial workers). They lose water and salt through sweat but only replace their fluids with water. The combination of muscular fatigue seems to play a role is this scenario too. In this case, adding saline (salt) to the drinking water almost abolished the presence of cramps in industrial workers.

Cramps can also occur when sweat rates are low but still present during muscle fatigue and repetitive muscle activation. So, researchers propose another cause.

2.) Altered neuro-muscular control: Athletes who are prone to cramping have demonstrated a lower threshold of muscle cramps provoked by electrical stimulation. This would fall into the realm of ‘Telegraphists’ cramp’. This type of cramp may originate in the central nervous system and nerve receptors in the muscles secondary to muscle fatigue. In this scenario it seems stretches might be an effective treatment. Folk treatments like drinking pickle juice or vinegar have shown to be beneficial anecdotally (possibly by shocking the neurons).

Because running involves high sweat loss & repetitive muscle activation, there may not be one single factor and treatment effectiveness may depend on the scenario the athlete is placed in. I hope this has helped shine some light. Please share any treatment ideas you have below.

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