muscle cramps in legs
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How to Stop Muscle Cramps Fast, According to a Doctor

Muscle cramps can be sudden and excruciating. What causes them and what will make them go away — fast?

An emergency room doctor offered tips on treating, preventing and stopping these painful episodes in their tracks.

What causes muscle cramps?

“Muscle cramps or excessive nerve stimulations in the muscles … are caused by stress to … the nerves within our muscles,” said Dr. Patrick McHugh, a specialist in emergency medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. “Causes include conditions such as low magnesium, low calcium, low thyroid [activity] or the kidneys or the liver being affected by dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.”

But that's not all, he added.

“There are other causes such as peripheral neuropathies, conditions where patients have frequent nerve cramping and long-term conditions such as ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis],” McHugh said.

According to a 2021 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, electrolytes combined with water showed success in reducing muscle cramps after exercise, while water alone actually increased participants’ muscle cramps.

"This indicates that muscles become more prone to cramp by drinking plain water, but more immune to muscle cramp by drinking the electrolyte water,” lead researcher Ken Nosaka, director of exercise and sports science at Edith Cowan University in Australia, explained in a news release. “This is likely because pure water dilutes the electrolyte concentration in our bodies and doesn't replace what is lost during sweating."

The Cleveland Clinic says that other causes of muscle cramps may include:

  • Insufficient stretching
  • Aging
  • Pregnancy
  • Certain medications like statins for high cholesterol and the nasal congestion drug pseudoephedrine

What deficiency causes muscle cramps?

In addition to low levels of electrolytes like potassium, salt (sodium) and magnesium, low calcium levels combined with low vitamin D levels may also cause your muscles to cramp.

Why? Because calcium helps muscles contract, according to the Bone Health and Osteoporosis Foundation (BHOF), while vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium.

How to stop muscle cramps fast

Here are five fast ways to stop muscle cramps fast, from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons:

  • Immediately stop any activity that you were doing when the cramp started
  • If your muscles are tight, apply heat
  • If your muscles are sore, apply cold
  • Massage the area while holding the muscle in a stretched position
  • Drink water and replace electrolytes

How to prevent muscle cramps

McHugh said diet is key.

“A top muscle cramp prevention method would be assuring that a healthy diet, including appropriate vitamins and minerals such as from greens, salads and vegetables, is maintained,” he said. “In addition, adequate hydration, especially with drinks that replace the salts that we lose from sweating, is important.”

The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) says that the best foods for preventing muscle cramps are:

  • Pickles for sodium and water
  • Trail mix for calcium and magnesium
  • Salted coconut for potassium and sodium
  • Salted watermelon for water and sodium

To help with calcium absorption, be sure to get enough sunlight and include these vitamin D-rich foods in your diet, the BHOF recommends:

Stretching regularly is also important. NASM offers some tips to help you make the most of your muscle warm-up routine:

  • Hold your stretches for at least 25 to 45 seconds
  • Repeat the stretch two to three times
  • Try range-of-motion stretching exercises like walking lunges and hip circles

When to see a doctor

If you notice any of the following issues with cramps, the Cleveland Clinic says it’s time to seek medical attention:

  • They last more than 10 minutes
  • They’re severe enough to stop your regular daily activities
  • They won’t go away even after proper hydration, stretching, nutrition or electrolyte rebalancing
  • They begin after you’ve encountered a toxin or infectious agent

“It is important to seek medical attention if fatigue, dizziness, headaches, chest pains or shortness of breath begin,” McHugh said. “Any symptoms that make somebody feel light-headed or like their heart is racing or if they have chest pain, shortness of breath or confusion should be directed to the emergency department right away. Calling 911 with any of the symptoms is the most important first step.”

References

The Cleveland Clinic: Muscle Cramps

The Cleveland Clinic: Electrolytes

The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: Effect of oral rehydration solution versus spring water intake during exercise in the heat on muscle cramp susceptibility of young men

Eureka.org: Muscle cramps? Drink electrolytes, not water

The Bone Health and Osteoporosis Foundation: Calcium and Vitamin D

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Muscle Cramps

The National Association of Sports Medicine: Foods to help with muscle cramps

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