Any number of things can cause muscle spasms or cramping of muscles. Indeed, there are also different types of muscle cramps. To specify, when I say “muscle” cramps or spasms I am referring to skeletal muscles. The musculoskeletal system consists of muscles literally attached to your skeleton, unlike most of your organs which are made of smooth muscle tissue (your heart is comprised of cardiac muscle). But I digress…
Why, oh Why?
Muscle spasms or cramps can occur for a variety of reasons. As with most things that are physically uncomfortable (like illness), they can be held at bay or minimized with proper nutrition, hydration, and physical activity. Eating processed foods can increase your chances of getting muscle spasms/cramps, as does being dehydrated. Strenuous exercise/muscle fatigue can increase your chances of getting cramps, as well as injury.
When the nutrients or electrolytes in your body are out of balance, your body reacts and not in a way you want it to. Muscle cramps can be painful to the point of being debilitating. Remember your parents telling you that you can’t swim until at least half an hour after eating? I know, it didn’t stop most of you, but the rationale behind it is pretty sound.
Sometimes, the type of cramp makes a difference with regard to how it’s caused.
A Cramp by Any Other Name…Still Hurts
You may have experienced one or all of these, but they tend to have the same effects and it’s difficult to differentiate between them:
True Cramps: Considered the most common type, they affect single muscles or a group of muscles that act together. Generally, they’re caused by over-excited nerves. Such cramping can also occur after an injury or strenuous exercise, even after you’ve stopped doing the exercise. This is especially true if you become dehydrated. These also include resting cramps, which can occur very inconveniently (and sometimes quite painfully) in your sleep.
Tetanic Cramps: These can feel pretty much the same as true cramps and can occur when all nerve cells are activated. Muscle spasms and cramps can occur throughout the body in this case. Sometimes low calcium and low magnesium can affect nerve behavior such that it causes this type of muscle cramp.
Dystonic Cramps: These types of cramps almost seem counterintuitive. Muscles that are not actually needed to perform whatever movement you are performing actually contract. Oftentimes, it’s even a muscle used for the opposite movement.
So…What Can I Do?
Aside from the obvious answer of “eat properly, hydrate well, and exercise regularly (including stretching),” there are a variety of natural remedies that can be beneficial in reducing or eliminating muscle cramps (and of course, there’s acupuncture). If you feel you’re deficient in nutrients, make a point of taking vitamin supplements, but as with any remedies, consult your doctor for treatment recommendations. Here are a few natural/herbal ones that you can look for: cramp bark, passion flower, celery seed (regular celery is pretty beneficial also), rosemary, and wild yam.