Muscle cramps are a common neurologic phenomenon and are generally considered to be benign in nature. If you've ever had a bad cramp, though, you know just how disabling they can be.
You can get a cramp for a variety of reasons — dehydration, overuse of the muscle or damage are plausible explanations. They typically only last about 10 seconds, but sometimes minutes, causing significant pain or even muscle damage that can leave you limping for a day or two.
While cramps can affect any muscle in the body, they appear in some areas more than others. The feet, lower and upper legs along with the shoulder blades are primary targets where those knots often drop in for a visit.
So if you're someone who experiences cramps with any regularity, or if you get them infrequently but dislike them as much as the rest of us, read on for some tips on how to minimize their impact and prevent pain when they occur.
Foot cramps can really take the bounce out of your step. Nearly all foot cramps occur on the bottom of the arch and just below the toes on the underside of the foot. If the cramp is bad enough, it may even curl your foot into a ball. It's hard to do anything — let alone walk — if your foot is folded up tightly.
Remedy: Immediately sit down and take off your shoe. Cross your cramped leg across your lap, grasp your big toe and bend it backwards (upwards) with a bit of strength. This will force the muscles of your foot to stop the intense and irregular firing pattern, essentially arresting the cramp.
Calf cramps are perhaps the most notorious of them all. Complete with agonizing pain and the inability to walk, they can be a real challenge to deal with. Not to mention the frequency at which they occur makes them a routine problem for most people at some point over the course of a lifetime.
Remedy 1: Immediately and aggressively stretch out your calf. The classic runner's stretch (pushing against a wall with one leg forward and one leg back) has the best capacity to prevent the muscle from firing and stop the cramp in its tracks.
Remedy 2: Place your bare foot on a cool floor. This slows the nerve conduction traveling up the leg and helps to dampen some of the aberrant muscle firing occurring in the calf.
Thigh cramps come without warning and can force you to pull your leg right to your chest if it's bad enough. Most thigh cramps manifest in the back of the leg somewhere between the buttock and the knee. If you get one, it needs to be stretched out quickly.
Remedy: Sit in a chair and grab your thigh tightly, pressing your fingertips deeply into the knot of the muscle. Next, pull your toes toward you, straighten your knee and hold it in that position for about 15 seconds; it should quell the cramp.
Shoulder blade cramps may be one of the more aggravating and annoying forms of cramps around. Fortunately, they're more of a nuisance than they are crippling, and can be easily mitigated with a little pressure.
Remedy: Lean against the corner of a wall and press the knot into the wall. Applying direct, continuous and firm pressure over the course of 20 seconds should make it subside.
Gloucester resident Joe DiVincenzo is a physical therapist and clinical specialist in manual therapy. He writes "On the Mend" weekly. Questions may be submitted to Joe by email at email@example.com.