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Cramps: Why we get them, and how we can stop them

Muscle cramps are extremely common and painful things that can affect anyone, regardless of their level of fitness. Here's what you need to do

Muscle cramps can be painful and debilitating.
Muscle cramps can be painful and debilitating. (Istockphoto)

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They can hit you when you’re asleep, or when you stretch too much, and they can also hit you when you’re exerting a weak muscle. Muscle cramps are probably the most annoying repetitive niggle one can face. And, over time, the fear of cramps can play on your mind and affect your performance. This is as true for a fitness beginner, as it is for a pro-athlete. 

A cramp is an extreme muscle contraction, mostly felt in the lower body (calves, hamstrings and feet). The usually subside after you stretch out the muscle in the opposite direction of the cramp. But when cramps hit, they can be extremely painful; and debilitating if the fatigued muscle continues to keep working. 

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“When you do electrical studies of cramps, you see that the motor nerve triggering the affected muscle is firing at an extremely high rate—much higher than when a person consciously moves a muscle on their own,” writes neurologist and movement disorder specialist Dr. William Ondo, in an article titled Muscle Cramps: 8 Things That Cause Them & 4 Ways to Stop Them.

A prime example of how even the best athletes suffer from cramps was when French World Cup winner and Manchester United defender Raphael Varane went down with cramps during an intense Premier League match against Liverpool on 22 August. Closer to home, many players have gone down with cramps during the first week of the Durand Cup, which heralded the beginning of the competitive football season in India. 

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“In my first game after a break or an injury, I would get cramps nine out of ten times. It would almost always be the calf muscle. Sometimes it also happens when you suddenly get a game after being out of the first team for a while. I would prepare with having salts before and at halftime – because sometimes you’ve had enough water but maybe not enough salts and electrolytes,” says Darren Caldeira, who has played for Bengaluru FC and other clubs, and is now a football pundit. 

Using salt to help with cramps is something humans figured out over a century ago, when it was used as relief for cramping due to heat among industrial workers. A study titled The Role Of Sodium In ‘Heat Cramping’ states that not all cramps are alike, but heat cramping is what athletes suffer from, especially due to sweating, fluid loss, and fatigue. “In tennis and football alike, heat-crampers tend to be salty sweaters. Some evidence also suggests that triathletes who cramp may lose more salt during the race than peers who do not cramp. The third line of evidence is practical experience with therapy and prevention. Intravenous saline can reverse heat cramping, and more salt in the diet and in sports drinks can help prevent heat cramping. For heat cramping, the solution is saline,” states the paper, published in the National Library Of Medicine

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But it’s not just dehydration. Cramping while asleep can happen due to unavoidable precursors like muscle loss, aging, and pregnancy. They can also happen due to an inactive lifestyle which leaves muscles tight. Proper preparation before any physical activity also matters. Interestingly, Mumbai City, which prepared for three weeks in warm weather in Abu Dhabi before the Durand Cup, have had almost no issues with players cramping on the pitch. “We need to be fitter—the way you see players go down with cramps can make one question their preparation,” adds Caldeira.  

Current I-League club Roundglass Punjab’s head coach, Ashley Westwood, is well known to prepare his team’s fitness in a way that players don’t go down with cramps on the pitch while in the middle of a competitive season. But even with intense preparation, some bodies might just be more prone to cramping, and it can lead to a mental block. 

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“It can play on a players’ head at times. I remember when I would be playing after a while, and in my head, I kind of knew I will get one, and you can’t pace yourself in a football game, you have to go all out. It’s also important to see what position they’re playing, how long they’re playing after, and their injury record,” says Caldeira.

Cramps are worth serious worry only if you are getting them regularly despite hydration, measured salt intake, and dynamic warm-ups. This becomes more serious if cramps are accompanied by weakness or reduced muscle size. 

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“There can be metabolic reasons for muscle cramps, such as hormonal disorders that cause electrolyte imbalances…There are certain neurological disorders that cause cramps,” writes Ondo. However, these are rare.

While household treatments like drinking pickle juice might help, it is important to make sure you are eating enough foods with potassium, sodium, calcium, and magnesium. Make sure you know your cramp patterns and read the signs from your body. 

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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