A muscle cramp is a sudden and involuntary contraction of one or more of your muscles. If you've ever been awakened in the night or stopped in your tracks by a sudden charley horse, you know that muscle cramps can cause severe pain. Though generally harmless, muscle cramps can make it temporarily impossible to use the affected muscle.
Long periods of exercise or physical labor, particularly in hot weather, can lead to muscle cramps. Some medications and certain medical conditions also may cause muscle cramps. You usually can treat muscle cramps at home with self-care measures.
Most muscle cramps develop in the leg muscles, particularly in the calf. Besides the sudden, sharp pain, you might also feel or see a hard lump of muscle tissue beneath your skin.
Muscle cramps usually disappear on their own and are rarely serious enough to require medical care. However, see your doctor if your cramps:
Overuse of a muscle, dehydration, muscle strain or simply holding a position for a prolonged period can cause a muscle cramp. In many cases, however, the cause isn't known.
Although most muscle cramps are harmless, some may be related to an underlying medical condition, such as:
Factors that might increase your risk of muscle cramps include:
These steps may help prevent cramps:
You can usually treat muscle cramps with self-care measures. Your doctor can show you stretching exercises that can help you reduce your chances of getting muscle cramps. Making sure you stay well-hydrated also can help. For recurrent cramps that disturb your sleep, your doctor might prescribe a medication to relax your muscles.
If you have a cramp, these actions may provide relief:
Stretch and massage. Stretch the cramped muscle and gently rub it to help it relax. For a calf cramp, put your weight on your cramped leg and bend your knee slightly. If you're unable to stand, sit on the floor or in a chair with your affected leg extended.
Try pulling the top of your foot on the affected side toward your head while your leg remains in a straightened position. This will also help ease a back thigh (hamstring) cramp. For a front thigh (quadriceps) cramp, use a chair to steady yourself and try pulling your foot on the affected side up toward your buttock.
While holding on to a chair, keep one leg back with your knee straight and your heel flat on the floor. Slowly bend your elbows and front knee and move your hips forward until you feel a stretch in your calf. Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds. Switch leg positions and repeat with your other leg.
Some suggest taking vitamin B complex supplements to help manage leg cramps. However, more research is needed to confirm this benefit.
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have muscle cramps that are severe, frequent and not getting better with self-care.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
When you make your appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do in advance. Make a list of:
Take a family member or friend along, if possible, to help you remember the information you receive.
For muscle cramp, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.
Your doctor is likely to ask you questions, including: