What are muscle cramps, image is of a lower leg with cramp and hands holding leg

What are Cramps?

Muscle cramps are sudden contractions in one or more muscles. These contractions are involuntary, meaning that a person cannot control them.

These cramps can cause uncomfortable symptoms, but, for the most part, they are temporary. The duration of symptoms typically ranges from seconds to minutes.

What does Cramp feel like?

When muscle cramps occur, you may feel a sudden tightening in the muscle or muscles in the area. It may feel as though you have flexed your muscle, even if you are otherwise relaxed. This tightening often does not stop and leads to pain in the area as the muscle over-contracts.

The muscle may also seem to twitch or spasm.

In some cases, such as with muscles close to the skin, you may be able to see the contraction in the muscle. A hard knot or lump of tissue may form in the affected muscle.

Causes of Cramp

Although there are many possible causes of a cramp, in many cases, the underlying cause is unknown. Some muscles may simply start cramping for a short time and then go back to normal.

Cramps may occur anywhere in the body, but they most commonly affect the legs — specifically, the calves. One article notes that about 80% of cramps occur in the calf muscles.

The reason for this may be that people use the calves throughout the day. However, the exact cause may vary in each case.

The authors of an article in Sports Medicine also note that cramps are hard to study because they are largely unpredictable.

First up are the slightly more common ones.

Overusing or continuously using the same muscle can lead to it cramping. It seems to be a stress response in the belly of the muscle.

Holding a position continually, for a long period of time, asking the same muscle to hold a contraction or extension, will put it under stress and potentially lead to cramping.

Drinking water during or post-exercise is too late if you are dehydrated and this may be a contributory factor to cramps. Keeping hydrated at all times is key.

However, recent research has come to light that it may not simply be about dehydration when it comes to cramping, but it will be a contributory factor.

A lack of a warmup and stretching post-exercise can cause cramps. If your muscles are warmed up and become more elasticated before being used then you are more susceptible to cramps and injury.

Likewise, if you don’t stretch post exercise and move that lactic acid that gets stuck in your muscles, then your risk of cramp highly increases.

The uterus is a highly muscular organ, and it appears that most menstrual cramps originate here. The pain is however not entirely muscular.

First, it is important to understand that contractions of the uterus are a normal part of menstruation. The uterine muscles push out the endometrium (inner lining of the uterus) which thickens and sloughs off as part of the menstrual cycle. This is seen as the menstrual blood (menses) which sometimes has clots.

Image of woman holding her stomach as in pain with periods or menstruation

These contractions are caused by a chemical known as prostaglandins. It stimulates the muscles of the uterus to contract. Prostaglandins are also a mediator of inflammation, where the pain is a feature. In some women who have higher levels of prostaglandins, the contractions are very strong and may also lead to spasms. This is what gives rise to menstrual cramps that are very painful and can at times be debilitating.

Around your ‘time of the month’ you are particularly vulnerable to a whole list of ailments. Believe it or not, the list of menstrual period symptoms isn’t short and muscle and joint aches and pains definitely make an appearance. Very slight niggles can become exacerbated as a result of a barrage of hormones and chemicals (and sometimes a lack of!) circulating around your body.

Mineral depletion and lack of electrolytes (calcium, magnesium, sodium or potassium) can lead to insufficiencies in the muscles.

Amongst other reasons, a mineral imbalance can negatively affect blood flow to the muscles, which can lead to cramp.

A spinal nerve compression can cause muscle cramps in your legs when walking or standing.

A spinal nerve compression can be caused by lots of things. Get in contact if you’re concerned or not sure whether to seek professional advice.

A poor diet, full of heavily processed foods can definitely contribute to cramps.  Having a healthy, balanced diet, rich in vitamins and minerals will help to prevent cramps.

If you get cramps on a regular basis then it may be time to have a good look at your nutrition.

Image is of a white plate with green peas displayed to look like a sad face and green knife and fork

Low blood supply to your legs and feet can cause cramping in those areas when you exercise, walk, or participate in physical activities.

Do you suffer with circulation-type problems?

Kidney or thyroid issues can affect fluid levels with both increasing the chance of getting muscle cramps.

In fact, muscular cramps can be a symptom of kidney disease, so if you’re concerned always best to get it checked out by the doctor.

People with peripheral vascular disease or diabetic neuropathy may suffer from muscle cramps, with poor circulation and nerve damage likely to instigate spasms. Side effects from certain medications used to treat diabetes can also result in muscle cramps.

It’s not clear why women get leg cramps in pregnancy. But it could be the pregnancy affecting your metabolism, too little or too much exercise, electrolyte imbalances or vitamin deficiencies.

Cramping can also occur in your abdomen. Even though they can sometimes indicate problems, mild and transient cramping early in your pregnancy is usually normal and not a sign of miscarriage. One such common pain is known colloquially as lightning crotch. It is a quick, sharp pain in the vagina, which many people experience without any harm to their pregnancies.

In most cases, there’s probably no immediate cause for concern if the pain you feel isn’t severe, one-sided, or accompanied by bleeding. Call your OB/GYN if you have any questions or worries about cramping (or any other concerns) in pregnancy.

Pregnant lady wearing a white top holding her pregnant belly with her hands

 There are quite a few medications out there that can have the side effect of cramps. These include:

1. Diuretics (also called water pills) are used to treat high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and oedema, among other conditions. Diuretics help the body get rid of excess fluid by moving it into the urine.

2. Thiazide diuretics are most commonly used to treat high blood pressure, although they are also used to treat congestive heart failure, oedema and other conditions.

3.Beta-blockers are typically prescribed to treat high blood pressure (hypertension) and arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms). Beta-blockers are also used to treat angina, migraines, tremors and, in eyedrop form, certain kinds of glaucoma.

4. Statins and fibrates are used to treat high cholesterol.

5. Beta2-agonists are bronchodilators — drugs that relax the smooth muscles surrounding the bronchial tubes, making it easier to breathe. They’re frequently prescribed to relieve the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

6. Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors are used to treat high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and other conditions. These drugs help relax blood vessels by preventing the body from producing angiotensin II, a hormone that causes blood vessels to narrow and, in turn, blood pressure to rise.

7. Angiotensin II-receptor blockers (ARBs) are often used to treat coronary artery disease or heart failure in patients who can’t tolerate ACE inhibitors or who have type 2 diabetes or kidney disease from diabetes.

8. Antipsychotics are used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other serious psychiatric conditions. Antipsychotic drugs also are often prescribed “off label” to treat agitation and depression, among other conditions.

If you routinely suffer from painful leg cramps and think your medications may be the cause then talk to your GP about alternatives.

Cramp Treatments

There are a few things you can try to help alleviate cramps or the subsequent pain that can linger after a nasty cramp.

These include:

  • Hot cloth
  • Heating gel
  • Cold cloth
  • Ice
  • Stretching
  • Over the counter anti-inflammatories, ibuprofen for example
  • Prescribed muscle relaxants from your doctor
Treatment of cramps shows images of ice cubes, hot water bottle, medication and clipboard with medical notes


Prevention is key when thinking about muscle cramps. If you are susceptible then acting when you aren’t experiencing them will be more effective.

There are lots of things you can take into consideration. Here are a few of the things you definitely need:

  • A healthy, nutritious and balanced diet (stay away from processed foods)
  • Good, consistent, hydration with electrolytes if needed
  • Good warm-ups and cool-downs
  • Regular stretching routines
  • Supplements if needed for vitamins and minerals
  • And don’t exercise straight after eating.


When to see a Doctor

For most people, night leg cramps are merely an annoyance — something that jerks you awake infrequently. But in some cases, you may need to see a doctor.

Seek immediate medical care if you have:

  • Severe and persistent cramping
  • Night leg cramps after being exposed to a toxin, such as lead

Schedule a GP visit if you:

  • Have trouble functioning during the day because leg cramps interrupt your sleep
  • Develop muscle weakness and atrophy with leg cramps