From Emotional Stress to Dehydration: What Are the Causes of Cramps and How to Prevent Them?

Muscle cramps are a very common condition that we have all suffered from at one time or another. Although they can occur at any time – even when we are resting in bed – they are particularly common in sports.

In this case, and to prevent them from affecting our performance, it is important to understand what causes them, what can be done to reduce the pain and how they can be prevented.

“A cramp is an extremely painful and involuntary muscle spasm,” explains Dr. Ángel Ruiz Cotorro. They can last from a few seconds to a few minutes and, although they are very uncomfortable, they disappear without leaving any after-effects. If you touch the area of the cramp, the muscular tension feels like a rock; sometimes “you can feel nodules or small hardnesses under the , but there is no need to be alarmed: these are only muscles that have been shortened and contracted at that level.

This problem, the specialist continues, “is common in athletes and affects the large muscles of the legs during or immediately after exercise. It is an exaggerated and paradoxical reaction of the muscle to fatigue, which responds to nervous hyperexcitability”. Thus, it has been established by clinical and electromyographic observations that cramps are of nervous origin and are related to a hyperactivity of the musculo-nerve reflex.

To give an example, let us imagine a muscle group that is much more solicited than the others, such as the calves during a tennis match: between the contractions of the calf, there is a spontaneous and forced relaxation. “If the muscle is tired after 90 minutes of play and does not stop, that is, the leg continues to be solicited, increasing the nervous excitability of the group and the loss of body fluids, the calves are unable to relax and maintain the contraction, triggering the cramp.”

As for its origin, the main cause is overexertion, either because the exercise lasts longer than usual or because it is performed at a higher intensity than our body was used to before. Also, continuous use of a muscle, , muscle tension, ambient temperature and humidity, lack of proper physical preparation, inadequate throughout the season and emotional stress, or simply holding a position for a prolonged period of time, can cause cramps.

In the event of cramping, explains Dr. Ruiz Cotorro, “the first thing to do is to identify which muscle it is and force it to stretch for 15 to 30 seconds, repeating the operation if the cramp does not disappear. Then, it is advisable to apply local heat to the area and not to continue exercising” .

Learn to prevent them

In terms of prevention, the specialist advises us to carefully avoid the factors that can predispose us to suffer from them and to follow the following indications:

  • Adequate physical preparation with a program of flexibility exercises including stretching of the most solicited muscle groups.
  • Personalized nutrition during the season. An adequate amount of carbohydrates in the meal before the competition and a correct intake of fluids will help to minimize the .
  • Proper hydration during the competition. In particular, containing mineral salts and carbohydrates (glucose and fructose) in adequate proportions.
  • Before the , it is advisable to apply a massage gel with a cold effect, which prepares the muscles and favors their subsequent recovery, providing an immediate sensation of and intense freshness.
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