What causes muscles cramps? How can we prevent them? And why, when a group of athletes are doing the same amount of exercise in the same conditions, do some athletes cramp and others do not?
Speaking at the American Medical Athletic Associations’ Sports Medicine Conference prior to the Boston Marathon, exercise physiologist Bob Murray PhD reported those questions are hard to answer because studying spontaneous muscle cramps is difficult. It’s hard to make a muscle cramp on demand. Plus, cramps generally dissipate within seconds or minutes, before they can be studied.
We do know there are different types of muscle cramps: some are associated with exercise, others happen at night. Some cramps “twitch,” others as “stiff.” But all are painful and accompanied by a knotting of the muscle. About 68% of triathletes and 30% to 50% of runners complain about muscle cramps during exercise, and 50% of runners complain about leg cramps happening at night, at least once a week.
We also know that exercise-associated muscle cramps tend to occur in active muscles that are fatigued, hyperthermic (overheated), and dehydrated. The nerves that control muscle contractions seem to stop functioning normally. Hence, the current thinking is cramps are related to the nervous system failing to tell the muscle to contracting.
What are some ways to get muscle to stop cramping? In some people, some of the time, relief is found with stretching, better hydration, increased salt intake, massage, pinching the upper lip, and spicy/bitter/pungent foods like pickle juice, mustard, kimchi, apple cider vinegar, and quinine. How pickle juice and other pungent foods work is unknown, but believed to trigger an inhibitory neural (nerve) reflex that reduces activity in the cramping muscle.
Research with a product called #itsthenerve (www.itstheneve.com) suggests this combination of pungent foods can abate muscle cramps (fewer cramps, shorter duration). Cramp-prone athletes who have taken the product offer positive testimonials. Whether reduced cramping is due to placebo or the product, who knows! But the cramp-prone athletes they don’t care; their cramps are gone!