Muscle cramps are common in any sporting activity. Fit or unfit, young or old – no one is immune to cramps.
You know that feeling – the sudden contraction of skeletal muscle and the sharp twinge that follows, often stopping you from continuing your movement.
The legs (thighs, hamstrings and calves) are more prone to them and you might even feel a lump of muscle tissue beneath the skin during these painful bouts.
Cramps can last anywhere from seconds to minutes, and the more severe the cramp, the longer it will take to recover.
Though generally harmless, muscle cramps can make it temporarily impossible to use the affected muscle.
According to the Mayo Clinic in the United States, factors that might increase your risk of muscle cramps include age (the older you are, the higher your risk as your muscle mass decreases with age, hence the remaining muscles get easily overstressed), dehydration, pregnancy and medical conditions such as diabetes, nerve, liver or thyroid disorders.
Low salt intake, low potassium levels, low carbohydrate consumption, working out for lengthy periods or in hot, humid climates, or inadequate warm ups can also contribute to muscle cramps.
A tight muscle is also more inclined to cramp as it has contracted and squeezed the blood out. The muscle then has restricted blood and nutrients, which will affect how well it works.
Many athletes use deep heating gels and creams to increase the temperature of muscles before an activity.
When using such sprays, muscle rubs and patches, the warming effect brings additional blood supply to the affected area. It then supplies vital oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, helping them to release tightness and move freer.
However, it is important that you do not use heat therapy immediately after strenuous exercise or at the onset of injury, as it increases circulation and could cause further damage. Cold therapy should be used instead.
The latest fad in minimising muscle cramps is the use of magnesium oil and topical magnesium sprays.
Magnesium is a common mineral found in the diet and body. It is stored in muscles and soft tissue, and plays a role during muscle contraction.
Lack of magnesium may lead to irritability, muscle weakness and irregular heartbeats.
It has long been thought that magnesium supplementation is the solution for all sorts of muscle cramps.
Some studies show that magnesium, despite being available in many dietary sources, is absorbed poorly orally.
Magnesium taken orally is affected by a number of elements in the gut, and can also act as a laxative, which reduces the amount of time the mineral can be absorbed in the body.
Several companies are promoting products that claim better absorption of magnesium into the body through the skin or transdermally, but there isn’t much scientific evidence to back this up.
Lately, I’ve been hearing many instances of naturopaths and personal trainers telling clients that they are magnesium deficient without proof from a blood test.
Avid marathon runner friends swear by magnesium oil and rub it onto their muscles the night before a race.
Medically, it is possible to have magnesium deficiency, although it is very rare.
Magnesium is naturally found in many food sources such as green vegetables, legumes, beans, nuts, shellfish, unprocessed grains and cereals. It is available as a dietary supplement and present in some medicines such as antacids and laxatives.
Tap, mineral and bottled waters can also be sources of magnesium, but the amount of magnesium in water varies by source and brand.
To find out what the buzz was all about, I purchased a bottle of magnesium oil after a persistent trainer insisted my troubled gut would reap the benefits and I’d be a reformed woman.
I also bought another bottle for my mother who suffers frequent leg cramps, though her blood results showed she was not magnesium deficient.
After a month of diligent use, she reported that the frequency of her cramps had lessened.
Despite its name, magnesium oil is not actually an oil. The name originated because of the oily texture when magnesium chloride flakes are mixed with water. It’s also scent-free.
I didn’t see any improvement in my gut, but I applied a few drops and massaged it behind my neck before retiring for the day.
There was a tingling effect the first few times of application but the feeling eventually disappeared.
Yes, my sleep was noticeably better and I’d wake up before the alarm went off!
At the moment the research is inconclusive on the effectiveness of magnesium supplementation for muscle cramps.
To prevent cramps the safe way, make sure you’re adequately hydrated as fluids help your muscles contract and relax, besides keeping the muscle cells hydrated and less irritable.
Make it a point to replenish fluids, preferably water, at regular intervals throughout the day.
Also, gently massage the muscle and stretch the one most prone to cramps before, and especially after, an activity.
If you have cramps while sleeping, stretch before bedtime. Stretching also relaxes you and enables better sleep.
And who knows, applying a few drops of magnesium oil on the muscle before you hit the bed may help.
There is an old wives theory that says if you pinch the top lip, the nervous reaction can cause the cramp to disappear. No harm trying, but do expect a bruised lip.