Understanding Cramps, Stopping and Preventing them, Updated Science

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

This article is a transcribed edited summary of a video Bob and Brad recorded June in of 2021. For the original video go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-gCo08Kjo8&t=404s

Brad: Today, Bob is on a little hiatus, he’s taking the day off.

Chris: Attaboy.

Brad: So, we are going to do this, Chris and I. You’ve seen Chris before. He has excellent information and presents himself well, much better than Bob or I. Today’s topic is “Understanding Cramps Stopping and Preventing Them.” We’ve got some updated science and we’ve got some good information on how you can stop cramps when they start and perhaps on how you can prevent them. Really interesting information. Pretty much everyone has experienced painful cramps, I think I’m safe in saying that. Some people more than others. Often times they are induced by exercise or excessive fatigue. Other times they come on for no apparent reason. So, Chris got his desk out and he commenced on researching this to the nth degree and we’re going to come up with what he has to tell us. I’m going to tell you some things I’ve worked with my patients on over the years, what’s been the best solution to prevent and stop them once they start. So, cramp: it’s when a muscle contracts into tetany; tetanus. That’s when a muscle contracts to maximum potential. Very painful.

Chris: It’s awful.

Brad: It’s not done volitionally. In other words, your brain isn’t telling that muscle to cramp. It just happens. Chris, can you explain a little more on that, technically?

Chris: Cramps are awful. We’ve all experienced them at one level or another. Young or old, you can get them, it doesn’t make a difference. What we do know, cramps are a by-product seemingly of fatigue and dehydration. These are probably the two most prominent causes that we are going to see.

Brad: So, not enough water.

Chris: Not enough water, not enough electrolytes. You could throw diet in there to a lesser degree probably. It can be age related; you’re going to see it. As we get older, we lose some muscle mass. So, if we were standing all day, working all day in the yard, we don’t have as much muscle mass to support our bodies so as a result it just creates more fatigue on the muscle. When you’re sitting in the chair at night, watching TV, reading a book or when you’re sleeping, all of a sudden, boom. You got that cramp and it’ll wake you up in the dead of night. It’s miserable.

Brad: You kind of holler a little bit.

Chris: Yeah, you might say some magical words. It’s different from magical thinking, but either way it’s not fun stuff. So, what do we do? It’s one of those things where there’s not a lot that really happens. There’s not a lot of preventative maintenance but what we can do is light stretching, maybe before bed.

Brad: So, really the bottom line is the research has no definitive answer.

Chris: No, it’s really a by-product of fatigue. It’s a by-product of hydration. There can be a couple other things, maybe some hypothyroidism.

Brad: Maybe eat a lot of bananas, get that potassium in your system.

Chris: Yes, potassium definitely seems to be something that’s beneficial. There are some correlative studies that talk about magnesium supplementation, because you’re going to have your electrolytes, sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. They’re all part of the action potential of the muscle to make the muscles contract and relax, contract and relax. The muscle is just in a hyper contracted state when we get there. It seems like if we’re not getting enough fluids and maybe we have sweated out too much of our own salts or our electrolytes, it becomes an operative problem. If we can supplement that through our daily diets, and there’s a couple of things we’ll go through as we go further into this about what to do to prevent it as much as we can.

Brad: So, as far as my experience in the clinic, the biggest muscle groups that cramp are in the legs. The toe, the muscles in the toe and the bottom of the foot that make her toes curls is pretty common. The calf muscles and the hamstrings and the quads as well, but probably the hamstrings are more on the top of that list. We are going to focus more on those because I think we’re safe on saying that is covering the majority. What I’ve had with elderly people in particular, the people who come to me in the clinic and say, “I get these night cramps,” and say your calf cramps. What happens is, your toes are going to plantar flex or go down cause those muscles to cramp. When you get that, it’s very painful. The first thing you have to do is dorsiflex or pull that foot back up. Now, this is very awkward in bed to reach up, especially if you’re older, to reach your toe and pull back.

Chris: Especially when you're in the dead asleep.

Brad: Yeah, so, I suggest when you need to get out of bed safely; if your balance is off, have something there. If you have a walker possibly or the wall, would depend on your situation. Be safe but get up and put your body weight through that to stretch it. It seems to work the best. It’s easier than pulling on it and you’re going to stretch out. In other words, a foot from plantar flexion to the neutral position, the pain should start to lessen. Then you can bring your foot behind you. Hold onto the dresser or whatever to dorsiflex or bring the ankle up even further. You can push your knee forward to stretch it more. By that time, the pain should be gone. It may be painful, but you won’t have that severe cramp pain. You’re going to hold it there. Don’t let it go back and cramp right away. Try and hold it. Give it a stretch. Walk around a little bit before you go back to bed. And so, you’ve had it stretched.

Brad: One thing that can trigger a cramp is if you stretch and yawn in bed and you kind of like think you’re stretching your legs because it feels better. Those are times where you can get those quadriceps, those calf muscles and the toe cramp where your toes curl under. I’ll talk about toe cramps because they’re very painful. I usually get them swimming. When you push off the floor, not many people swim laps. Anyways, swimmers get them a lot. If you get them and your toes curl down, this is one of those things where it’s, I think it’s easiest. As long as you can get to your foot, if you can reach it, to get on those toes and just stretch them the opposite direction the best you can and work on that.

Brad: This includes a family member; anybody around can help you if they know what to do. I thought it interesting, I got certified in scuba diving last year. You have to learn how to stretch someone’s legs in the water with your gear on.

Chris: I bet that's kind of tricky.

Brad: It’s not so bad once you get used to it and how to work your BC but that’d be another video.

Chris: Maybe underwater filming.

Brad: Yeah. So, you need to stretch that. And the hamstrings; the tendency is it’s going to want to pull your knee up and flex it. You’ve got to do whatever you can. If you’ve got someone there to help if you can lay on your bed. On your stomach. So, if this cramp is pulling and if the person can lay on their stomach and someone else can go here and push, push, push this leg down. When you get this out to here (all the way straight), that cramp should relieve.

Brad: If you don’t have someone to help you, then you’re going to need to do what you can to straighten that leg. Can you lay on your back, Chris?

Chris: Yeah.

Brad: You get these don't you Chris? What do you do to relieve yours?

Chris: Scream, ha-ha. Actually, I try to stretch as quickly as I can.

Brad: What techniques do you do in bed?

Chris: Well, I get out of bed as quickly as I can. For me, whether it’s my calf or my hamstrings, those are my two most common cramping points. But, with my hamstring, actually what I’ve found is that I’ll get my foot up on my bed and then I’ll just lean into it. So, if you can imagine me standing, I’d have my foot on the bed and just gently stretch. Then I’ll walk.