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home : health : health July 22, 2018

9/26/2017 1:42:00 PM
Cramp relief is not what you think
By Andrew Loscutoff

Many exercisers can testify to the agony of muscle cramps. Muscles lock up in a painful contraction with persistent and unrelenting pain. These painful situations can seriously affect a workout or activity, and people are often willing to try anything and everything to intervene.

Things as silly as pickle juice or concoctions of cinnamon are often home remedies. Cramping is often cited as a result of dehydration or electrolyte deficiency. Someone will rush to bananas (because they contain potassium) or even pedialyte (infant electrolyte formula) for relief.

Many of these remedies are steeped in old theories, and have only anecdotal evidence to support them.

So, what is the true cause of muscle cramps?

Exercise science is finally discovering some of the mechanisms that cause exercise-induced cramps and are revealing that what many people think about cramping is wrong. Now that there is more knowledge about cramps, practical steps can be taken to alleviate the agony.

It is now understood that cramping is a neuromuscular dysfunction that resides within the muscle cells. Inside the muscle's cells there are mechanisms which tell the muscle what tension to be at and what the resting length of the muscle should be. That's important for moving, lifting, and resting. The system is completely automated. These tiny organisms are connected to nerves, which are regulated by the autonomic nervous system. Sometimes, a disturbance occurs and the muscle becomes very short and tense.

This can be a "knot" in the muscle, or a full-on cramp.

Cramping occurs more often in a fatigued muscle, which is why the dehydration myth seemed plausible. A fatigued muscle is more likely to also be dehydrated. Correlation - not causation. Hot weather as the culprit behind cramping also seems plausible, because under warmer conditions, overexertion may be more likely than in cooler temperatures.

A cramp is more likely when the muscles are under more tension, which might explain why they are more prevalent when going uphill or down. Under these conditions, more of the muscular cells are activated and there is a higher likelihood that the nerves can be disrupted.

To alleviate a cramp, it was once thought important to immediately consume a dosage of fluids and electrolytes. If one considers how long it would actually take for the fluid to reach the affected area it seems impossible to believe this hypothesis. One would be cramped for a period of many minutes before the fluids reach the muscles.

What is now recommended is a stretch-relax-contract sequence to "shut off" the haywire nerves. This can be done with a light stretch of the affected muscle for five seconds, a complete relaxation period (as much as allowed), then a slight movement contraction.

Another interesting recommendation is using a certain type of compound found in foods to stimulate the nervous system through the mouth. Compounds found in peppers, and some other foods activate a system called the TRP pathway. It seems that this works with the nervous system to provide relief by giving a shock to the system.

This new research and findings give us some new insights and opportunity to understand cramps and how to prevent them. It is amazing how connected our body is as a system - and that this whole system continues to work most of the time without any interruption.

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