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Cramping Your Style

By David Grotto, RD, LDN

Man Holding Hurt Leg

The term “Charley Horse” dates back to the 1880s, and its origins may refer back to popular White Sox pitcher, Charley Radbourne, nicknamed “Old Hoss,” who suffered from chronic leg cramps. In fact, whether your name is Charlie or not, almost everyone experiences a cramp at some time in their life. Cramps are common in adults and become increasingly frequent with age. Leg cramps may happen for several reasons: lack of fluids, injury, muscle strain, or staying in the same position for a long period of time. Blood circulation problems or pressure on the nerves in the spine can also cause cramp-like pains in your legs. Other common causes include:

  • Pregnancy
  • Diabetes
  • Decreased potassium level
  • Neuromuscular disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease
  • Certain medications
  • Alcohol and excess caffeine use
  • Several vitamin deficiencies may directly or indirectly lead to muscle cramps including thiamine, pantothenic acid, and vitamin B6.

Cramping can occur while engaging in intense physical activity. The key to the prevention of acute EAMC (Exercise-associated muscle cramping) is to protect the muscle from developing premature fatigue by being well conditioned for their activity. Perform their activity at a lower intensity and a shorter duration if they are not well conditioned and regularly stretch the muscle groups that are prone to cramping. EAMC is more common in hot and humid environmental conditions.

How is it treated?

If you do get a leg cramp, you may be able to make it go away by:

  • Walking on it
  • Massaging it
  • Straightening your leg and flexing your foot toward your knee until you feel the calf muscles stretch
  • Applying a cold pack
  • Taking a hot bath

Controlling your diet to include these vital nutrients may help stave off a big pain.

  • Fluids: Water contains vital minerals called electrolytes that help facilitate proper muscle contraction.
  • Potassium: Many produce items like fruits and vegetables are loaded with potassium. Many blood pressure meds waste potassium and can contribute to muscle cramps. Check with your doc or pharmacist to see if you need to take a potassium supplement.
  • Calcium: Calcium plays an essential role in muscle contractions, so you should include some milk, yogurt, or another calcium-rich food in your diet every day !
  • Magnesium: Make sure to get your muscle-relaxing foods like oatmeal, almonds, halibut, bran muffins, pumpkin seeds, barley, buckwheat flour, low-fat vanilla yogurt, trail mix, garbanzo beans, lima beans, soybeans, and spinach!
  • Sodium: If there is salt on your skin after the sweat dries, then you’re a salty sweater, and you may need to eat salty foods before exercise. The salt helps retain fluids and delay dehydration. Most Americans get more than enough sodium.
  • Carbohydrate: This is more of a concern for endurance athletes as inadequate carbohydrate consumption can deplete glycogen stores in the muscles and cause cramping.
  • Vitamin E: If poor circulation causes muscle cramps, Vitamin E might be a good choice for its blood-thinning and vasodilating properties. Nuts like almonds and vegetable oils are great sources of vitamin E.

If you have frequent and severe leg cramps, talk to your doctor. Feel free to share any remedies that you’ve found that help keep muscle cramps at bay.

Photo: Stockbyte
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