Muscle spasms are the sudden, intense and uncontrollable contraction of muscles. They’re painful and frustrating, and can stop athletes in their tracks or jolt someone awake in the middle of the night. Also called a muscle cramp or charley horse, a muscle spasm happens when the muscle is fatigued and becomes unable to relax. Stretching is the best remedy, and regular exercise and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help prevent muscle spasms from occurring.Cramping during the menses phase of menstruation causes similar discomfort as muscle cramps but for a different reason. Doctors may suggest certain medications or contraceptives to minimize period cramping, although extreme or persistent cramping could be a sign of a more serious health issue.
What causes exercise cramps?
Muscle cramps during exercise can be debilitating, so it’s hardly surprising that people go to great lengths to avoid them. The sports world is full of “secrets” for avoiding cramps, from Epsom salt baths to drinking pickle juice or mustard, most of which are ineffective. Muscles constantly communicate with the nervous system, telling it whether they are stretched or contracted. When a muscle becomes fatigued, the signals between the tendon and the central nervous system essentially become confused. Instead of signaling for the muscle to contract, and then relax, the central nervous system sends more signals for the muscle to keep contracting. The signal to relax doesn’t get through and the muscle cramps.
The simplest way to avoid cramps during and after exercise is to avoid overexertion. Several studies have found that athletes who cramped were often running faster than their normal speeds.Exercising in hot or humid condition is more tiring and will cause muscles to fatigue faster. Staying hydrated and making sure your body is properly conditioned for exercise will also help stave off the fatigue that causes cramps.
Unlike exercise-associated or nocturnal cramps, period cramps aren’t related to overall health or physical exertion. Instead, they are a painful and sometimes debilitating side effect of the uterus contracting to expel the tissue that built up to support a potential pregnancy as part of the menstrual cycle. Period cramps are the result of a different mechanism than muscle cramps and therefore require a different treatment. For people whose period cramps aren’t calmed by pain medication, oral contraceptives may be the solution because they limit the growth of the uterine lining in the first place. With less uterine lining to shed, the risk of cramping decreases.
If period cramps are very painful and don’t respond to pain medication or hormonal contraceptives, they may be the result of an underlying medical condition such as endometriosis or uterine fibroids. At that point, a doctor will need to do more tests to find the cause.