Scientists do not know for sure what causes muscle cramps, but they have several theories. These include overuse of the muscle, poor electrolyte levels, dehydration and medical conditions. Studies have produced puzzling results, leaving the issue up for continued speculation. Medical professionals still make recommendations based on the theories, however, such as using electrolyte drinks and exercising for shorter periods.
The first theory about what causes cramps is that the muscle is extremely fatigued. Nerve signals control both relaxation and contraction of the tissue. Some scientists believe that, during exercise or other activity, these signals get out of balance. The muscle doesn’t get enough signals to stop contracting, or it gets too many signals telling it to tighten up and engage — that is, the part of the neuromuscular system that relates to contraction is hypersensitive. A puzzle to this theory, however, is that, despite the hypersensitivity of the neuromuscular system, only the muscle that is being overworked is affected, with others remaining in their normal states of relaxation or contraction.
The major problem with this type of cramping is that rest is really the only remedy, which means that a person can’t continue his exercise or activity. This can create a bad or inconvenient situation in some cases, such as if a person is hiking alone and can’t get back to camp without help. For an athlete in the middle of a competition, it can spell the end of participation, eliminating the chances of progressing or winning.
Poor Electrolyte Levels
Electrolytes are dissolved minerals in the body that have an electrical charge. They play a role in getting nerve signals through the body and keeping the right amount of fluids present. These minerals are also involved in muscular contraction.
As a person exercises, the body produces sweat as a way to cool itself. Moisture travels out of the body through the skin, taking some electrolytes with it. Sodium helps the body retain the water necessary for the muscles to function properly. If a person loses too much sodium as he sweats, increasing the intake of plain water isn’t very helpful because the body can’t keep it in the fluid compartments of the body, including those in muscles. He excretes it through additional sweating or increased urination instead.
Fixing this is fairly simple: the individual simply needs to drink something that has electrolytes in it. This will quickly stop the cramping, and in many cases, it allows a person to continue his activities as he normally would.
A consideration with this theory is that different people have very different body makeups. One person may sweat a lot during exercise, while another does not. In the same way, some people lose more sodium during exercise than others. This means that certain individuals might experience electrolyte-based cramps more than others. Trainers, athletes and others involved in sports need to be mindful of this because it means that it is not reasonable to expect all athletes to get through particular events or exercises without cramping problems.
Some experts think that dehydration is the main reason why muscle cramps happen. When a person isn’t getting enough water, his body tries to keep it where it is most important, such as the brain or heart, in order to keep basic physiological functions going. The lack of fluids in and around the muscles, according to these professionals, is what causes the nerves to become hypersensitive and initiate a cramp.
In the past, trainers used to withhold water from athletes until they had performed to expectations. This created a vicious cycle, because without the water, athletes were more prone to cramp and be temporarily unable to continue. Professionals now are more aware of the role hydration plays in muscular activity, so most athletic organizations severely reprimand trainers and other individuals who do not allow athletes to have access to fluids.
Certain medical conditions can be the source of cramping. A good example is narrowed blood vessels, which can happen due to conditions such as plaque buildup and heart disease. The narrowed vessels prevent enough blood and oxygen from getting to the muscle, preventing it from relaxing and contracting properly. Medications that medical professionals prescribe to patients sometimes cause intense contractions, as well.
Even though medical experts have some ideas about what might cause muscle cramps, nothing is conclusive yet. Studies have demonstrated, for example, that they have occurred in people who were well hydrated and who did not have poor electrolyte levels. Experts are continuing to research the issue, but the condition remains largely a mystery. It might be that all of the theories are correct to some degree rather than one being completely right or wrong.
Prevention and Treatment Recommendations
With the precise causes of cramps still under investigation, it is not completely clear what the best prevention method or treatment for the condition is. Despite this, given the theories, professionals usually recommend the use of electrolyte drinks, or adopting a diet that includes an adequate supply of both water and salt. They also recommend that people who are prone to cramps exercise for shorter periods or at a lower intensity.