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Muscle Cramps

By

Michael C. Levin

, MD, College of Medicine, University of Saskatchewan

Last full review/revision Aug 2021
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A muscle cramp (charley horse) is a sudden, brief, involuntary, painful contraction of a muscle or group of muscles. Cramps commonly occur in healthy people (usually middle-aged and older people), sometimes during rest, but particularly during or after exercise or at night (including during sleep). Leg cramps at night Sleep-related leg cramps Parasomnias are undesirable behaviors that occur during entry into sleep, during sleep, or during arousal from sleep. Diagnosis is clinical. Treatment may include drugs and psychotherapy. (See... read more usually occur in the calf and cause plantar flexion of the foot and toes.

Other disorders can simulate cramps:

Etiology of Muscle Cramps

The most common types of leg cramps are

  • Benign idiopathic leg cramps (leg cramps in the absence of a causative disorder, typically at night)

  • Exercise-associated muscle cramping (cramps during or immediately after exercise)

Although almost everyone has muscle cramps at some time, certain factors increase the risk and severity of cramps. They include the following:

  • Tight calf muscles (eg, due to lack of stretching, inactivity, or sometimes chronic lower leg edema)

  • Dehydration

  • Electrolyte abnormalities (eg, low body levels of potassium or magnesium)

  • Neurologic or metabolic disorders

  • Removal of a large volume of fluid during dialysis in patients with end-stage kidney disease

  • Drugs

Also, certain toxins can cause muscle cramps.

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Evaluation of Muscle Cramps

Evaluation of muscle cramps focuses on recognition of what is treatable. In many cases, a disorder contributing to cramps has already been diagnosed or causes other symptoms that are more troublesome than cramps.

History

History of present illness should elicit a description of cramps, including their duration, frequency, location, apparent triggers, and any associated symptoms. Symptoms that may be related to neurologic or muscle disorders can include muscle stiffness, weakness, pain, and loss of sensation. Factors that can contribute to dehydration or electrolyte or body fluid imbalances (eg, vomiting, diarrhea, excessive exercise and sweating, recent dialysis, diuretic use, pregnancy) are recorded.

Review of systems should seek symptoms of possible causes, including the following:

Past medical history should include any disorders that can cause cramps. A complete drug history, including use of alcohol, is taken.

Physical examination

Pulses should be palpated, and blood pressure measured in all extremities. A weak pulse or low ankle:brachial blood pressure ratio in an affected limb may indicate ischemia.

Red flags

The following findings are of particular concern:

  • Upper extremity or truncal involvement

  • Hyperreflexia or hyporeflexia

  • Muscle weakness

  • Fasciculations

  • Signs of alcoholism

  • Hypovolemia

  • Pain or loss of sensation in a peripheral nerve, plexus, or root distribution

Interpretation of findings

Focal cramps suggest benign idiopathic leg cramps, exercise-associated muscle cramping, musculoskeletal abnormalities, peripheral nervous system causes, or an early degenerative disorder that can be asymmetric, such as a motor neuron disorder.

Focal hyporeflexia suggests a peripheral neuropathy, plexopathy, or radiculopathy.

In patients with diffuse cramps (particularly those who are tremulous), hyperreflexia suggests a systemic cause (eg, ionized hypocalcemia; sometimes alcoholism, a motor neuron disorder, or a drug, although effects on deep tendon reflexes can vary by drug). Generalized hyporeflexia can suggest hypothyroidism and sometimes alcoholism or be a normal finding, particularly in older patients.

A normal examination and compatible history suggests benign idiopathic leg cramps or exercise-associated muscle cramping.

Testing

Testing is done as indicated by abnormal clinical findings. No tests are routinely done.

Blood glucose, renal function tests, and electrolyte levels, including calcium and magnesium, should be measured if patients have diffuse cramps of unknown cause, particularly if hyperreflexia is present.

Ionized calcium and arterial blood gases (ABGs) to confirm respiratory alkalosis are measured if patients have tetany.

Electromyography is done if cramped muscles are weak.

MRI of the brain and often spinal cord is done if muscle weakness or neurologic signs are focal.

Treatment of Muscle Cramps

  • Stretching

Underlying conditions are treated when identified.

If a cramp occurs, stretching the affected muscles often relieves the cramp. For example, to relieve a calf cramp, patients can use their hand to pull the toes and foot upward (dorsiflexion).

Applying heat (eg, using a warm towel or heating pad, taking a warm bath or shower) or cold (eg, massaging the affected muscle with ice) may help ease pain.

Prevention of Muscle Cramps

Measures to prevent cramps include the following:

  • Not exercising immediately after eating

  • Gently stretching the muscles before exercising or going to bed

  • Drinking plenty of fluids (particularly beverages that contain potassium) after exercise

  • Not consuming stimulants (eg, caffeine, nicotine, ephedrine, pseudoephedrine)

  • Not smoking

The runner’s stretch is most useful. A person stands with one leg forward and bent at the knee and the other leg behind and the knee straight―a lunge position. The hands can be placed on the wall for balance. Both heels remain on the floor. The knee of the front leg is bent further until a stretch is felt along the back of the other leg. The greater the distance between the two feet and the more the front knee is bent, the greater the stretch. The stretch is held for 30 seconds and repeated 5 times. The set of stretches is repeated on the other side.

Most of the drugs often prescribed to prevent cramps (eg, calcium supplements, quinine, magnesium, benzodiazepines) are not recommended. Most have no demonstrated efficacy. Quinine has been effective in some trials but is no longer recommended because of occasional serious adverse effects (eg, arrhythmias, thrombocytopenia, thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura [TTP] and hemolytic-uremic syndrome [HUS], severe allergic reactions). Mexiletine sometimes helps, but whether using it is worth the risk of adverse effects is unclear. These effects include nausea, vomiting, heartburn, dizziness, and tremor.

Some athletic coaches and physicians recommend pickle juice for muscle cramping, but data concerning its efficacy are insufficient.

Key Points

  • Leg cramps are common.

  • The most common causes are benign idiopathic leg cramps and exercise-associated muscle cramping.

  • Cramps must be differentiated from claudication and dystonias; clinical evaluation is usually adequate.

  • Stretching can help relieve and prevent cramps.

  • Drug therapy is usually not recommended.

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