Cramps in Calf Muscles
Cramps refer to a sudden, painful muscle contraction that occurs by itself (without the voluntary effort of the individual). Such sudden involuntary contractions are called muscle cramps and are caused by over-contraction of a muscle.
Cramps are very common – about 95% of people experience cramps at some stage of their lives. Their probability increases with age. Cramps mostly occur in the legs, most frequently in the calf muscles. There are two calf muscles, the gastrocnemius, a large, bulging muscle on the back of lower leg, and the soleus, another muscle that lies right next to the gastrocnemius.
What causes a cramp?
Cramps can affect anyone at any time. They can occur during vigorous prolonged activity or immediately afterwards, such as after running a marathon. Apart from repetitive use, maintaining an uncomfortable posture for a long period may also cause muscle fatigue and cramps.
Cramps usually occur at rest, often at night. They are more common in the elderly and the reason is unclear. Some suggest that it is because of contracting an already shortened muscle. At night when one is sleeping with bent knees and downward flexed feet, the calf muscles are in a shortened position, any further contraction can elicit a spasm of the muscle.
Cramps may also be caused by:
Over-exertion of the muscles, especially without proper stretching
Abnormal (high or low) electrolyte level, i.e., of sodium, potassium and calcium (that may be associated with dehydration)
Low blood sugar level
Excess alcohol, drugs such as diuretics, nifedipine, salbutamol, etc.
Later stages of pregnancy
Symptoms & Treatment
Muscle cramps or spasms may last for a few seconds to few minutes. Rarely, cramps may last up to fifteen minutes. Even after the cramp is settled, the muscles can remain sore for the next 24 hours or so.
Muscle cramps vary in intensity, and can be extremely painful.
The first thing to do is to stop whatever you are doing (if you are not already on the ground).
The second step is to try relieving the pain by:
Gently stretching the cramped muscle
Standing: put your hands on a wall or human support, put the painful leg a step behind the other. Pointing the foot straight forwards and keeping the heel on the ground, lean forward gradually.
Sitting: lift your toes upwards and extend your leg
Lying down: extend the leg and point the toes towards yourself
Remember, bending the knee or flexing the foot downwards further shortens/contracts the calf muscle; your aim should be to stretch it by doing the opposite. Hold the muscle in the stretched position until the cramp is settled.
Ice applied to numb the area will reduce pain during a cramp or afterwards to relieve the soreness.
Gently massage the area to improve the circulation
Consult your physician if the pain persists or if it occurs frequently
How to prevent cramps:
- If you are an athlete, learn the importance of stretching and other warm-up exercises and follow them properly. Never work out with cold muscles, as it increases the risk of developing cramps.
- The elderly usually get cramps when they start a new activity or overdo some activity without proper conditioning of the body.
- Always start gradually and stretch properly.
- Use sports massage to improve the condition of the muscles. Keep yourself well hydrated. With the amount of salt in the processed modern diet, salt deficiency is a rare possibility.
- For frequent spasms, physicians sometimes prescribe quinine, which helps to reduce the frequency and severity of muscle cramps. However, it should only be considered as a last resort when nothing else works for debilitating cramps.