PERSISTENT MUSCLE CRAMPS
Muscle cramps are extremely common, and everyone has experienced a cramp at some point in their life. Cramps can occur in both adults and in children. For most people, they occur occasionally, however, they have been known to be recurrent and problematic.
Lack of vitamins and minerals (essential salts) in the body can lead to muscle twitches, weakness and cramps. The common culprits are de iciencies in calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium and vitamin B.
Blood circulation problems
If muscles fail to get su icient nutrients and oxygen, they become susceptible to cramps. This happens if the blood vessels (mainly arteries) are diseased. (Arteries carry blood from the heart to different parts of the body whilst veins transport blood in the opposite direction). If arteries in the arms and legs are unhealthy, it is known as peripheral arterial disease (PAD). In PAD, the arteries harden (due to build-up of cholesterol rich layers known as ‘plaques’ on the inner surface of the vessel). These vessels cannot supply blood to the legs su iciently and causes one to get leg cramps as you walk. These cramps are often relieved by resting. As PAD progressively gets worse, the pain occurs even at rest (sometimes it is so severe it wakes you up at night). Nocturnal cramps caused by PAD are often relieved by hanging the legs/feet out of the bed. PAD can also cause the hair over the legs to disappear and the soles of the feet to appear very pale. The feet can also develop unusual sensations such as numbness, pins and needles and burning sensations. They are also very cold to touch.
Some medication can make you susceptible to muscle spasms. These include pills known as diuretics (used to treat high blood pressure, heart failure and kidney problems), Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s medication, cholesterol lowering tablets and some anti-asthma medication. If you suspect that your medication may be the cause of your cramps, talk to your doctor about inding you a viable alternative (do not stop long term prescription medication without the guidance of your physician).
Muscle cramps are relatively common if you exercise vigorously or go for long periods of time without adequately hydrating yourself. Low levels of water in your body causes the salts (electrolytes) in your body to become imbalanced and this triggers muscle spasms.
Health problems like diabetes and disorders in nerve, kidney, liver or thyroid function put you at higher risk of developing muscle cramps.
Nerve compression (spinal problems)
Nerves may be compressed in as they come out from the various openings in the back bone. This commonly occurs in the lower part of the back bone (an area known as the ‘lumbar spine’). This is sometimes referred to as a ‘pinched nerve’. Nerve compression produces cramp-like pain in your legs. The pain usually worsens as you walk. The pain is usually relieved if you lean forward as you walk (the position you would take if you were pushing a pram or shopping cart). Although nerve compression is common in the lower back, it can happen in any part of the back bone. If it happens around the neck, the cramps tend to occur in your arm.
Muscle cramps are very common in pregnancy (especially in the later stages of the pregnancy). The exact reason for this is not well understood although it is thought to possibly be related to hormonal changes.
Exercise related cramps
Exercise related cramps are due to muscle fatigue (due to overexertion whilst exercising), insu icient warming up before exercise, dehydration and exercising in the heat.
Aging does not in itself cause you to get muscle cramps, but it is associated with a higher risk of getting them (usually due to other health issues).
Sometimes muscle cramps occur without any obvious cause. These are referred to as being ‘idiopathic’ and can be very frustrating to deal with.
When to seek medical attention
If you have persistent muscle cramps that are limiting your daily activities or waking you up at night, it is in your best interest to visit your doctor. Cramps of this nature often require in-depth assessment. The management of the cramps will depend on the underlying cause.