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Question
Posted by: Adele | 2004/02/25

Severe muscle cramping in lower legs.

My husband played volleyball for 2 hours last night and sweated a lot without taking in water or fluids. He has experienced cramping before and takes salt tablets for it, but last night it was the worst. We stayed up the whole night massaging his legs, he sat in a hot bath, walked and stretched. I've never seen calf muscles spasm like this before, it turned almost inside out. To make it worse the shin muscle was cramping simultaneously and in both legs. What can he do to prevent this happening again. Must he drink water while exercising, stretch well before exercising, take salt tablets before he plays or take other supplements? Do you have any suggestions. He was in complete agony.

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Our expert says:
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Hi Adele

There are so many myths about cramping that a lot of what I have to say may come as a surprise to you. To start with, the bottom line is that cramping is not caused by mineral deficiency and so supplements do not help prevent them (at least not directly, although they may contribute indirectly, as I'll explain). A few years ago, a big study on 2 Oceans and Comrades runners found that when you compare the magnesium, sodium and calcium levels of runners with cramp with runners without cramp, there's no difference - that means that people cramp even though their mineral levels are exactly the same. So, this myth has come about based on very early studies in mines etc. and a lot of it has been driven by sports drink companies who want to market the products as a cure for cramp.The bottom line is that you are cramping even though your vitamins and mineral levels are normal.

So, then, what causes cramp? Without getting too technical, cramping is caused by a reflex stimulation of the muscle by the central nervous system - the muscle is constantly controlled by nerves and reflexes, and there's good evidence to show that a cramp occurs when the reflex control of muscle breaks down and the muscle is stimulated excessively. Exactly what causes this is unknown although it is known that fatigue is a major contributor - that's why people cramp late in races, more often they also cramp in the heat (it causes more fatigue), or why your husband would have cramped only after the game - I have very little doubt that he would have had a meal and thereby replaced any minerals, and so his minearal levels would be normal well into the night. It also explains why you cramp in the muscles that are most used.

So, the immediate treatment for a cramp is to stop and stretch the muscle very well - tests have shown that as soon as you do this, the reflex control of the muscle is restored, and this stops the cramp immediately. In terms of prevention, stretching regularly to improve your overall flexibility may help, stretching during the game may also help.

Then the other factor that helps prevent cramp is muscle strength. It's not a co-incidence that the people who cramp are often racing or playing hard, or pushing harder than their training has allowed them. So, the training is very important, and getting to maximum fitness is vital. In a sport like volleyball, it's the repetitive jumping up (which would involve the calf muscles shortening quite powerfully every single time, and then taking the load when he lands each time too). So, I think he needs to try to improve his muscle strength - maybe in a gym, or by doing some running, and specific training where he practices this movement. BY improving the muscle strength, you will delay muscle fatigue, and then hopefully the cramp won't occur.

So, these are the natural, more scientifically ways of preventing cramp.

I hope they work.

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

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