Getting a leg up
BY BEVERLY BURMEIER
CRAMPS CAN strike at any time—a sudden, excruciating jolt in your calf in the
middle of the night, or a hard ball of pain
during exercise. The muscle goes into a
spasm and causes severe pain.
Unlike overuse strains that result in
stiff, sore muscles and may not appear for
several days, cramps can occur in any part
of the body and result in tight, hard muscles
that are acutely painful.
Persons in any age group can develop
cramps, although they tend to occur
more from middle age on. And
cramps are common among physically active individuals, whether
they are weekend warriors or train
Although the causes and treatments of cramps can vary, there are
simple responses that should help
Solving the leg cramp puzzle
“A cramp in the calf muscle, com-
monly called a charley horse, is the most
prevalent kind,” says Dr. Marc Leavey, a
Costco member and primary care inter-
nist affiliated with Mercy Medical Center
in Baltimore. Possible triggers include:
• Overexertion that causes buildup of
lactic acid in muscles.
• Overstretching muscles during exercise or chores.
• Nutritional imbalance of the miner-
als that control muscle contraction and
relaxation (calcium, magnesium, potassium
• Dehydration from s weating or taking
medications like diuretics and statins.
• Inactivity such as sitting for a long
time in an airplane or car.
• Underlying illnesses, such as circulatory problems, diabetes and hypothyroidism.
• Getting older—;; percent of adults
over age ;; experience nocturnal cramps.
Relieving the pain
At the first muscle twinge of a calf
cramp, try the following tips to release its
• Rub or massage the muscle.
• Elongate the muscle by flexing your
foot upward and stretching your leg.
• Walk, if you can, or stand on tiptoe.
• Apply heat to relax the muscle,
although ice may be helpful after the initial
pain has subsided.
• A non-steroidal anti-inflammatory
medication may soothe residual soreness.
• If an irritated nerve is involved, physical therapy may help.
Prevent future occurrences
The following expert-recommended
tips are especially useful for suppressing
• Staying properly hydrated, especially
when exercising or traveling, is key. Sports
drinks may help balance electrolytes if you
sweat a lot.
In addition to drinking plenty of liquids, up your intake of four minerals that
aid in proper muscle function.
American diets generally include
enough sodium (;,;;; milligrams, or mg)
and magnesium (;;; mg for women and
;;; mg for men) each day,
so pay special attention to
requirements for potas-
sium (;,;;; mg) and cal-
cium (;,;;; mg) when
planning your daily nutri-
Adjust your diet to
include foods rich in missing nutrients (for example, bananas are high in
potassium, and bananas
and cantaloupe are high in
taking a daily vitamin and
• Begin a regular exercise routine that stretches
muscles—stretch your calves each morning
before putting on shoes and stretch again
before bedtime—and shorten exercise
periods to avoid overexertion.
• Sleep on your side with loose bedcovers; tight sheets and blankets can bend toes
downward, triggering cramps. Place a pillow under your calves with your heels
floating in the air.
Most cramps improve with rest and
time. “The best management strategies
involve staying hydrated, eating a balanced
diet and exercising regularly,” says Dr. John
MacKnight, a Costco member and associate
professor of clinical medicine and orthopedic surgery at the University of Virginia. A
few drops of ginger, lavender or birch oil in
your bath can help soothe sore muscles.
If the pain is chronic, severe or uncontrollable, contact your health care provider.
Preventing other types of cramps
Foot. Shift your weight every ;; min-
utes while standing. “A sudden hard move-
ment, such as jamming brakes on your car,
could trigger a foot cramp,” Leavey notes.
Hand. Change your grip often when
gardening, painting, writing or using hand
tools. Rest muscles ;; minutes for every
hour of concentrated work. Press fingertip
to fingertip, pushing your palms together,
to stretch finger muscles.
Thigh. Stay adequately hydrated. Try
yoga or tai chi for flexibility, or ride a sta-
tionary bike before bedtime.
Stomach/abdomen. Avoid overexertion
or dehydration. If you get side cramps while
walking or running, slow the pace until the
cramp is gone—but don’t stop moving. C
Beverly Burmeier is a freelance health writer.
Costco offers fresh, mineral-rich foods, and
Costco and Costco.com carry water,
coconut water, sports drinks and vitamins.
FOR YOUR HEALTH