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How to Ease the Pain of Muscle Cramps

Doctor Q&A

Board Certified Orthopedic Specialist, PT Solutions Physical Therapy

Muscle cramps take the word “ouchie” to a whole new level. They hurt. And sadly, no one is immune.


Some common factors that might increase your risk, though, include age, pregnancy, underlying medical conditions and subjecting yourself to dehydration.


With a little background and some helpful tips, you can crimp your cramps and save yourself a lot of pain.

Muscle Cramp Defined

A muscle cramp is a sudden, involuntary contraction of one or more of your muscles, often affecting the calf muscle. You’ll feel a sudden, sharp pain and possibly even see a hard lump of muscle tissue beneath your skin.


Also called a “charley horse,” a cramp can temporarily disable the muscle, but is harmless in the long-term.

Causes

  • Dehydration
    Lack of blood flow and fluid/nutrients to the muscle can cause cramping (think athletes, construction workers and anyone overly exerting in hot weather).
  • Mineral/electrolyte depletion
  • Too little potassium, calcium or magnesium can cause cramping. Muscles rely on these nutrients for normal function. Classic dehydration is not the only culprit. Diuretics, like blood pressure medications, can also deplete these minerals.

  • Misuse of a muscle
  • Overuse, strain, or simply holding a position for a prolonged period can cause a muscle cramp.

  • Inadequate blood supply
  • Circulatory disorders or artery disease can prevent healthy blood flow to the muscles, resulting in cramps.

  • Nerve compression
  • When a nerve is compressed, the signaling to the muscle becomes impaired, causing pain and leading to a cramp.

    How to Soothe a Muscle Cramp

    You can usually treat muscle cramps at home with self-care measures. Try these tips for relief:

  • Bear weight
  • For lower leg cramps, bear weight on the affected leg, bending your knee slightly, or try walking. If you're unable to stand, sit on the floor or in a chair with your affected leg extended.

  • Stretch
  • Pull the top of your foot toward your head while your leg remains in a straightened position. This will also help ease a hamstring (back of thigh) cramp. For a quadriceps (front of thigh) cramp, use a chair to steady yourself and try pulling your foot on the affected side up toward your buttock.

  • Massage
  • Apply pressure to the cramp, then gently stretch. Although ice is not necessary, some patients find it helpful to alternate massage with ice. 

  • Moist Heat
  • Once the cramp subsides, take a warm bath or direct the stream of a hot shower onto the cramped muscle. You might try a warm towel or heating pad on tense or tight muscles.

  • Medication
  • Most often, cramps can be handled without medication, but in the case of recurrent cramps that disrupt your sleep, your health care provider can determine if medications are warranted.

    How to Prevent a Muscle Cramp

    These steps are the keys to prevention:

  • Stay hydrated

    Drink plenty every day. Fluids help your muscles contract and relax, and keep muscle cells hydrated and less irritable.
    Especially during activity, replenish fluids at regular intervals and continue drinking water or other fluids after you're finished.
    Cases of high intensity exercise call for fluids with electrolytes, like Gatorade, Powerade and BodyArmor.&

    Note** Regular consumption of these drinks by someone who is not exercising and sweating is not recommended because of the sugar, sweeteners and artificial colorings they contain.
  • Stretch to warm up and cool down
  • Warmup exercises before extended exercise or muscle use, as well as post-activity stretching, can reduce the chance of getting muscle cramps.

    Generally, we don’t recommend static (holding type) stretching prior to exercise, but it is definitely appropriate following exercise.
    If you tend to have leg cramps at night, stretch before bedtime.

  • Light exercise
  • Activities like riding a stationary bicycle for a few minutes before bedtime can help prevent cramps while you're sleeping.

    In the case of nerve compression, walking in a slightly flexed position may improve or delay the onset of your symptoms. This may be best accomplished by walking on a treadmill with a slight incline.

  • Get comfy
  • Wear shoes with proper support.

    Untuck the covers at the foot of your bed.

  • Eat Properly

    A diet of whole, natural foods and fewer processed foods will ensure you are consuming adequate vitamins and minerals.
    Calcium, potassium or magnesium supplements, as well as a multi-vitamin, can ensure good muscle health.
    Note ** As always, refer to your health care provider for specific advice on medication or supplementation.


    How We Can Help

    At PT Solutions/SMH, the most important thing we physical therapists can do is educate you regarding the treatment and prevention of your cramps, including training in proper body mechanics, stretching and positioning. We also provide exercise prescriptions to guide you in your self-care at home.

    As far as hands-on therapy, we perform specific soft tissue mobilization, as well as joint mobilizations or manipulations to relieve symptoms and improve mobility.

    Seek help from a physician or physical therapist if your cramps:

    • Cause severe discomfort
    • Happen frequently
    • Don't improve with self-care
    • Are associated with leg swelling, redness or skin changes
    • Are associated with muscle weakness
    • Aren't associated with an obvious cause, such as strenuous exercise

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    For more on the information presented here, or to set up a free screening by a physical therapist at PT Solutions, call (913) 676-7778, or visit ptsolutions.com.