Just about everyone has experienced a muscle cramp or Charley horse. If you have, you probably still remember the sudden tight and intense pain caused by a muscle locked in a spasm. It can happen while you sit, walk, lift weights, or even sleep. Sometimes the slightest movement that shortens a muscle can trigger a cramp- which is an involuntary and forcibly contracted muscle or group of muscles that will not relax. Though generally harmless**, muscle cramps can not only cause pain, but also make it temporarily impossible to use the affected muscle. Overuse of a muscle, dehydration, muscle strain, inadequate circulation, poor nutrition, or simply holding a position for a prolonged period can cause a muscle to cramp. In many cases the cause of muscle cramps is unknown. However, there’s a way to end send the spasming muscle a signal to relax: contract the opposite muscle.
When muscle cramps occur, there are some self-care measures you can take to help ease the pain. Reciprocal inhibition is one of the best ways to stop a cramp quickly. Reciprocal inhibition is basically a muscle’s automatic response to accommodate the contraction of its opposing muscle. For proper joint function our muscles mostly operate in pairs; when one muscle contracts against resisted tension, it’s partner must relax in order to allow the movement. Classic examples of opposing muscle group partnerships include the biceps and triceps, the forearm flexors and extensors, the quadriceps and the hamstrings, the tibialis anterior and the calves, and the pectoral muscles and the rhomboids. It’s not always easy to tell which muscle to use while you are in pain but a good rule of thumb is to contract a muscle on the opposite side of the body as the cramp.
So, if you are having a cramp in your calf for example, you need to activate the opposite muscle, the tibialis anterior- your shin. To do this while standing, try pulling your toes up off the floor or even have a friend push down on the top of your foot while you push against their hand. If you are sitting or laying down, you can push down on the top of your foot of the leg with the cramp with the opposite foot while you pull your toes up against it. The goal isn’t to stretch the cramping muscle, but to contract the opposing muscle so the nervous system sends a signal to stop spasming. Sometimes the cramp will release instantly, sometimes it could take around 30 seconds.
Other techniques such as self massage, gentle stretching, icing or warming the muscle, or taking an Epsom salt bath may also be beneficial when used after the cramp has subsided. Other causes of muscle spasms could include nerve compression, mineral deficiencies, or side effects of certain medications**.
**When to see a Doctor** Muscles cramps usually disappear on their own and are rarely serious enough to require medical care. However see your Doctor if your cramps- cause severe discomfort, are associated with leg swelling, redness or skin changes, are associated with muscle weakness, happen frequently, respond poorly to self care, and aren’t associated with an obvious cause (such as strenuous exercise).