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A woman stretching her calf from a muscle crampWhat Causes Muscle Cramps?

A muscle cramp, alternatively known as a 'muscle spasm', is an annoying, intense, painful condition in which muscles suddenly contract by developing a palpable knot. In other words, a muscle cramp refers to an involuntary and uncontrollable contraction of one or more of the body’s muscles resulting in severe but brief pain. In fact, the pain as a result of a muscle cramp lasts only a short while, ranging from a few seconds to 10 or 15 minutes. Muscle cramps can occur in any muscle of your body; however they occur most commonly in three muscle groups:

  • quadriceps (front of the thigh)
  • gastrocnemius (calves)
  • hamstrings (back of the thigh)
They can also develop in such areas as the abdomen, arms, feet, and hands. Further, they can affect anyone irrespective of their age, sex, or race.

Even though muscle cramps are common, their exact causes are unknown and some experts think that they are due to neurological or chemical imbalances. A list of reported causes follows: dehydration, electrolyte reduction, nutritional imbalances, calcium deficiency as a result of some kind of kidney disease, intake of the wrong minerals or vitamin supplements, performing an activity for the first time, exposure to excess cold or hot climates, exercises involving certain muscles, and muscle fatigue. Muscle cramp is also sometimes associated with exercising of heat that result in sweating, which sometimes leads to depletion of salt, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. This in turn affects the nutrient levels in your body, thereby increasing the chances of muscle cramp.

Why do toes or calves often get muscle cramps at night?

A plethora of factors is attributed as causes for calf and toe cramps. One of the prime reasons for toe cramps is over exertion as well as sweating. Toe cramps may also be due to the nature of the shoes one wears. For instance, if you put on tight or high heeled shoes, you will have an increased chance to develop toe cramps at night. Decreased level of sodium and calcium deficiencies are the other causes for toe cramps at night. When it comes to night-time calf cramps, some of the prime reasons are dehydration, certain blood pressure medications, and excessive workouts during the day. Also, a major cause for calf cramps is pregnancy during which time the uterus puts forth pressure on the veins, which in turn causes an inadequate amount of blood supply to the legs, thereby leading to muscle cramps at night. Sometimes, calf cramps are also linked with diseases such as ALS, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, and vascular problems.

Muscle cramps during exercise

Muscle cramps during exercise are mainly due to frequent muscle contraction without the right proportion of muscle relaxation. Strenuous work-outs resulting in depletion of electrolytes, overtraining, and dehydration are the other causes of muscle cramps during exercise. They usually develops in marathon runners.

What foods prevent muscle cramping?

One of the prime causes for muscle cramping is low blood levels of sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Hence, it is recommended to intake nutrient-rich food items such as:

Sodium rich foods

  • Cheese
  • Popcorn
  • Canned chili and other canned goods

Potassium Rich BananaPotassium rich foods (potassium explained)

  • Apricots
  • Nectarines  
  • Oranges
  • Pineapples
  • Bananas
  • Grapefruits
  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Beans
  • Cheese

Calcium rich foods

  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese

Magnesium rich foods

  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Legumes
  • Whole grain foods

Apart from these, since dehydration is also a cause for muscle cramps, it is recommended to drink plenty of water as well as fluids and beverages containing high levels of potassium.

Prevent a Muscle Cramp

Here are some important remedies to prevent muscle cramps.

  • Avoid muscle fatigue by following a healthy fitness program
  • Warm up prior to exercise and stretch regularly after work outs
  • Perform exercises that are designed to stretch calves, quadriceps, and hamstring muscles
  • Observe a healthy diet that involves whole grain foods, cereals, vegetables, and fruits
  • Consume electrolyte supplements that aid to improve the level of sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium in your body  
  • Drink plenty of water
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