Ease your cramps
Every one of us has suffered from muscle cramps at some time or the other. When a muscle involuntarily contracts and is unable to relax, it is known as a muscle cramp. That sharp, excruciating pain one experiences is caused by the inability of the muscle to loosen.
Long periods of exercise or physical labour, particularly in hot weather, can lead to muscle cramps. In other words, overuse of a muscle, dehydration, muscle strain or holding a position continuously 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:
Inadequate blood supply: Narrowing of the arteries that deliver blood to the legs can produce cramp-like pain in the legs and feet while exercising. These cramps usually go away soon after one stops exercising.
Nerve compression: Compression of nerves in the spine can produce cramp-like pain in your legs. The pain usually worsens the longer one walks. Walking in a slightly flexed position — like pushing a shopping cart — may improve or delay the onset of these symptoms.
Mineral depletion: Too little potassium, calcium or magnesium in the diet can cause leg cramps. Low electrolyte levels may be due to use of some diuretics, alcoholism, certain hormonal disorders, Vitamin D deficiency or conditions that cause loss of fluids (and thus electrolytes). Electrolyte levels may become low late in pregnancy.
Cramps can occur shortly after dialysis, possibly because dialysis removes too much fluid from the body or too quickly and lowers electrolyte levels.
Types of cramps
Leg cramps: l Drinking very little water can cause the calf muscles to tense and result in leg cramps. l A build-up of lactic acid can also cause leg cramps.
Side cramps: l When one is nervous or stressed, breathing gets altered. This can cause side cramps.
l Lack of electrolytes like calcium, potassium and sodium might also lead to side cramps. l Side cramps are mainly caused due to ‘shallow breathing’ (not breathing deeply from the lower lung). One may experience slight pain near the rib-cage before the cramp occurs. This symptom suggests that faulty breathing technique should be rectified.
Abdominal cramps: l Shallow breathing techniques and a deficiency of electrolytes can cause abdominal cramps. l Consuming too much food or fluid just before running or exercise time can restrict breathing, giving rise to abdominal cramps.
Factors that might increase your risk of muscle cramps include:
Age: Older people lose muscle mass, so the remaining muscle can get overstressed more easily.
Dehydration: Athletes who get fatigued and dehydrated while participating in warm weather sports frequently develop muscle cramps.
Pregnancy: Muscle cramps are also common during pregnancy.
Medical conditions: You might be at higher risk of muscle cramps if you have diabetes, or nerve, liver or thyroid disorders.
How to avoid cramps
Drink plenty of fluids — avoid caffeine (coffee/chocolate).
Eat fruits and vegetables that are rich in water content and provide the required minerals.
Do NOT exercise immediately after eating.
Gently stretch the muscles before and after exercising and before going to bed.
If you are prone to getting cramps while you sleep, make sure the temperature of the room is not too cold or too hot.
Avoid tobacco and stimulant drugs like ephedrine/pseudoephedrine.
Ayurveda advises avoiding cold drinks/refrigerated food/germinated pulses and exposure to cold wind.
A set of ‘pranayama’ practised twice daily should help relieve side cramps.
Regular warm oil massage (Ksheerabala taila from any reputed pharmacy/or even plain gingelly or mustard oil) and simple stretching exercises can help prevent muscle cramps.
Stretch and gently massage: Stretch the cramped muscle and gently rub it after applying warm oil to help it relax. Stretching makes muscles and tendons more flexible and less likely to contract involuntarily. The runner’s stretch is the best stretch for preventing calf cramps.
Apply heat: Use a warm towel or heating pad on tense or tight muscles. Taking a warm bath or directing the stream of a hot shower onto the cramped muscle can also help. Alternatively, massaging the cramped muscle with Dhanvantaram taila/Prasarini taila/Maha Narayana taila/Karpuradi taila (any pharmacy) or pain-relief oil (Himalaya) followed by steam fomentation will relieve cramps.
Lashunadi vati, Shankha vati or Dhanvantaram gulika (any reputed pharmacy) – 1 or 2 pills with warm water is helpful in relaxing muscles.
Reosto (Himalaya) 2-0-2 may be continued for about 3 months if the cramps are due to calcium deficiency. n
Dr Srikanth is a postgraduate in Ayurveda and has been a consulting physician for the past 19 years. He is currently National Manager, Scientific Services, at The Himalaya Drug Company