Muscle cramps are involuntary, forceful and sudden contractions of the muscles or a single muscle that takes time to relax.1 Usually muscle cramps may last from several seconds to fifteen minutes and maybe for a little longer too. Generally muscle cramps are harmless. Due to these cramps, the involved muscle or muscles cannot be used for sometime. Muscle cramps also cause severe pain. Cramps are common in the muscles of leg and feet. There are many reasons for causing muscle cramps and depending on it the cramps may be experienced at night or during day or during rest.
What Causes Muscles To Cramp?
There are numerous causes behind cramping of a muscle or muscles although many of the times the cause remains unknown. Some of the causes are given below-
Vitamin Deficiencies- Some vitamin deficiencies can lead the muscle to cramp and these vitamins are vitamin B1 (thiamine), vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine). The exact pathophysiology that leads to muscle cramps due to these vitamin deficiencies is still not known.
Poor Blood Circulation- When the blood circulation is not proper or inadequate, there is lack of oxygen supply to the muscles and this causes severe pain that is a lot like muscle cramping.1 This happens while exercising and it stops as soon as the exercise is stopped. This is common in the muscles of the calf region.
Nerve Compression- When the nerves in your spine are compressed such as in conditions like lumbar stenosis, it causes cramping in your legs. The pain due to cramping becomes worse the longer you keep on walking, due to compression of the nerves.
Lack Of Minerals- Muscle cramps can be caused due to inadequate intake of minerals like sodium and potassium. Sodium and potassium are necessary for normal and rhythmic contractions of the muscles. When there is lack of these minerals in the body, it leads to muscle cramping and weakness of the muscles.
Certain Medications- Muscle cramping can be caused due to certain medications like furosemide, which is a diuretic that causes removal of fluids out of the body. When excess body fluids are lost, there is depletion of minerals like sodium and potassium and this deficiency leads to muscle cramping.
Dehydration– Due to conditions like diarrhea and excessive vomiting, there is extreme loss of body fluids and this causes sodium and potassium depletion leading to muscle cramping. This is the reason why ORS (Oral Rehydration Solution) is given that contains all the essential electrolytes that are lost during severe diarrhea. 2
How Is The Cause Of Muscle Cramps Diagnosed?
When the muscle cramps last for longer periods of time and keep recurring again and again, you must see your health care professional. The diagnosis is made usually on the basis of proper history and physical examination.
The questions usually asked are- what is the duration of the muscle cramps? When does the cramping occur? How many episodes occur in a specified time period? Are different body parts involved or always the same body part is involved every time?
The doctor also asks questions like what medications have been taken in the past or at present. History of hypothyroidism and diabetes is also important.
During physical examination, the doctor will feel the bulk of the muscle involved and look for pulsations in that area. If the person has atherosclerosis that is hardening of the wall of arteries, the arterial pulsations won’t be felt in that area.
Blood tests like complete blood count maybe be done to look for anemia, electrolytes balance will be checked, blood sugar level and thyroid function tests will be done to come to a final diagnosis.
If the muscle cramps are prolonged and non stoppable, there might be possibility that it might be due to muscle breakdown. In such cases, creatine phosphokinase (CPK) test is done.3 CPK is an enzyme that is released into the blood stream when there is muscle irritation or muscle breakdown.
Most of us have experienced muscle cramps at some point or another in our entire life. Muscle cramps are harmless and they go away on their own. Many of the times the cause of these cramps remains unknown. Some of the causes of muscle cramps are dehydration, mineral deficit, vitamin deficiencies, poor blood circulation, and certain medications, nerve compression as described above and over use of the muscle during exercise.