Where do cramps come from and what can you do about them? A short explanation of cramps and the best way to handle them.
Bang And You Are Down!
Are you watching the current Football World Cup? Then you’ll have noticed one thing happen more often than during most other incarnations of the event.
Take the Algeria – Germany match, where in the 107th minute Algeria’s captain Rafik Halliche gave the impersonation of an Energizer bunny whose batteries are still running, but whose legs finally called quits.
Ten minutes later Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger followed him. Or better, robbed after him, because his entire leg left went into sudden non-compliance. And many more followed. “They are dropping like flies now” wrote the Guardian.
Anybody into endurance sports knows those helpless feelings: you want to, but you can’t, no matter how much you wish for it. The cramping muscle out of nowhere got the sudden order to constrict and won’t let you argue with it.
Where Do Cramps Come From?
There are loads of explanations, but in reality sports medicine knows little about the why of cramps.
A long time favorite was that loss of fluid under hot conditions is responsible, but the evidence is scarce and one 2008 scientific overview rules it right out. The Algeria – Germany game further proves that theory’s fallacy: the game was played at an ambient temperature of 14°C (57°F).
If temperature does play a role in muscle cramps it’s under hot and humid conditions, but that’s up for further investigation.
All we really know so far is that cramps happen more often when a muscle is taken to the limit and that some miscommunication between it and the nerve relaying the brain’s orders is involved.
What To Do When You Cramp
The best first aid method you currently get to watch live on Brazil’s football pitches: passive stretching of the cramping muscle. This pulls the muscle in the opposite direction of where it’s stuck at.
As in endurance sports most cramps happen in the legs, this means you have to do this:
- If it’s the calf cramping, get a hold of your toes and slowly press them toward the shin
- For the quadriceps grab the injured leg’s heel and slowly pull it toward your bottom
- If it’s a cramp in the hamstrings, lie down, lock the knee and raise the leg to a right angle from the ground, stabilizing the position by putting your hands around the knee joint
Other than that your option is getting a good rest. The popular magnesium you can try, but the evidence for it doing anything useful is small. Recommending magnesium is less based on it working and more on there being no promising and safe medical alternatives.
Picture courtesy of Jon Candy.