Excruciating Pain. Hard knots under the skin. These are just some of the words used to describe muscle cramps.

These involuntary contractions have the power to awaken you from a deep sleep, stop you during a workout, or interrupt your much-needed rest. Muscle cramps can make grown men moan and utter unintelligible words under their breath as they furiously rub their muscles or move to stretch out the muscle and relieve the pain.

Most of us have experienced muscle cramps and spasms at some point in our lives.

Cramps can occur in every muscle of your body. Skeletal muscle cramps happen when individual muscle fibers or an entire group of muscles twitch or spasm. If the spasm does not release and relax, the intense contraction is known as a cramp.

People who suffer from muscle cramps may feel cramping pain for a few seconds or may have to endure the pain for 15 minutes or longer. Some muscles contract so hard during the cramp that the sufferer experiences muscle soreness after the muscle relaxes.

What causes muscle cramps?

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), muscle cramps are idiopathic events—meaning the best orthopedic surgeons and scientists do not know exactly why cramps occur. However, there are indicators that predict the likelihood skeletal cramps will develop in certain situations. Some of the most common triggers include:

Injury. Cramps may be the body’s protective response to an injury. While not comfortable, your body may use a muscle spasm to decrease movement and stabilize the injured area.

Activity. People are more likely to experience cramps after an intense workout or a hard day of physical work. Often, working a muscle until it reaches fatigue can lead to a cramp during the movement, after the activity stops, or later that same day.

Angel Bermudez experienced a Charley horse (a cramp in his calf) after a workout. While enduring the muscle cramp in his car, Bermudez videotaped his cramp as it moved through his leg and posted it on Facebook. His video went viral. We found it on DailyMail. You can watch it at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4796592/Man-suffers-intense-muscle-cramp-leg.html

Inactivity. Cramps may occur when a person stays in the same position for a long time. An individual who sits all day or who is bedridden may experience cramps with certain movements.

Repetitive Movements. Perfecting a hockey pass, a basketball shot, or a wrestling takedown requires hours of practice that use the same muscle groups over and over again. These repetitive movements can cause muscle cramps. But repetition is not just found in the sports arena. Kneading bread, typing or scrubbing actions also can lead to muscle cramps.

Rest or nocturnal cramps—Sometimes relaxation triggers cramps. This type of cramp often affects older adults. Night cramps, also called nocturnal cramps, are painful. They may interrupt a person’s sleep several times in one night.

While these are some of the most common theories as to why cramps occur due to a person’s activity, there are other factors that may contribute to the condition.

Dehydration. When people exercise, workout or participate in sports, they perspire and lose fluids. If their bodies become dehydrated, the risk of muscle cramps increases.

Medications. Some medicines, such as diuretic medications, can lead to dehydration and a loss of sodium; both situations increase the risk of muscle cramps.

Nutritional Deficiencies. When calcium or magnesium in the blood may drop to low levels, the risk of muscle cramps increase. Without adequate amounts of calcium and magnesium in the body, the nerve endings controlling the muscles become more sensitive and may cause the muscles to contract involuntarily.

Lack of Ergonomics. Working in an environment that requires people to use poor posture or bend and move in abnormal ways can cause muscle stress and strain. After hours of working in an uncomfortable position, muscle cramps and spasms ranging in severity from mild twitching to intense pain may develop.

How are muscle cramps treated?

Fortunately, most cramps go away on their own.

Most people who experience cramps will instinctively rub and attempt to stretch their tightened muscles. If the cramping is prolonged, applying a warm washcloth or a hot water bottle may help loosen the muscle.

If the cramp occurs during an activity, stop the activity, and allow the muscle to recover. It may relieve the cramping sensation.

Take steps to prevent muscle cramps.

If you are prone to muscle cramps, arm yourself with information to determine what types of foods and activities may trigger them. There are a few proactive and preventive actions you can take to control your risk.

  • Keep a journal of the foods you eat and your activities. You will also need to note the time and date when your cramps occurred. This is the first step to find an association between your activities and your risk of cramps.
  • Talk to your pharmacist about the medications and supplements you take. Ask if your medications cause dehydration, eliminate sodium or block your body’s ability to use calcium and magnesium in your blood. If they do, ask if there are alternative medications you can take.
  • Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about magnesium and calcium supplements.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Stretch your muscles—especially, the large muscle groups in your legs. The AAOS suggests stretching your calves, quadriceps and hamstrings with basic exercises every day to prevent cramping.

Call your primary care provider or an orthopedic specialist if your cramps become more frequent, increase in severity or are unrelated to activity. This may be an indication of a serious health condition.