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Muscle cramps – symptoms, causes and risk factors

Muscle cramps is a sudden and involuntary contraction of one or more of our muscles. If you have ever been stopped in your tracks by a sudden charley horse or you have been awakened in the night, then you should know that muscle cramps can cause severe pain. Muscle cramps are generally harmless but they can make it temporarily impossible to use the affected muscle. Long periods of exercise or physical labor, particularly in hot weather also can lead to muscle cramps. [1,2] Also there are some cases in which some medical conditions and some medications can lead to muscle cramps. In the most cases we can treat muscle cramps at our homes with simple home remedies.

Symptoms of muscle cramps

In the most cases muscle cramps can develop in the leg muscles, particularly in the calf. Besides sudden and sharp pain, you can also feel or see a hard lump of muscle tissue beneath your skin. In the most cases cramps are disappearing on their own. In rare cases they are serious enough to need medical care. You should see your doctor if your cramps cause severe discomfort, are associated with leg swelling, redness or skin changes or they are associated with muscle weakness. Also you should visit your doctor if your muscle cramps are happening frequently, they do not improve with self care or they are not associated with an obvious cause such as strenuous exercise.

Muscle cramps

Causes of muscle cramps

There are many causes which can lead to muscle cramps such as holding a position for a prolonged period, poor blood circulation in your legs, working calf muscles too hard while exercising, not stretching enough, muscle fatigue, magnesium and/or potassium deficiency, a problem such as spinal cord injury or pinched nerve in your neck or back, muscle strain, dehydration and overuse of a muscle. But there are many cases in which the cause for the cramps is not known. [3,4] In the most cases cramps are harmless but also there are some muscle cramps which can be related to underlying medical conditions such as

  • Mineral depletion: When you have too little magnesium, calcium or potassium in your diet, then this can also lead to leg cramps. Diuretics are medications which are often prescribed for high blood pressure and also they can deplete these minerals. [5]
  • Nerve compression: Compression of nerves in your spine (lumbar stenosis) also can produce cramp – like pain in your legs. This pain is usually worsening the longer you walk. Walking in a slightly flexed position (this means when you would use pushing a shopping cart ahead of you) can improve or delay the onset of your symptoms.
  • Inadequate blood supply: Narrowing of the arteries which deliver blood to your legs (arteriosclerosis of the extremities) can produce cramp – like pain in your legs and feet while you are exercising. These muscle cramps usually go away soon after you stop exercising. [6]

Also there are many cases when muscle cramps can occur as a side effect of some drugs. Here are the medications which can lead to cramps:

  • Statin medications for cholesterol such as atorvastatin (Lipitor), fluvastatin (Lescol), lovastatin (Mevacor), pravastatin (Pravachol), rosuvastatin (Crestor) or simvastatin (Zocor) [7]
  • Tolcapone (Tasmar) which helps treat Parkinson’s disease
  • Terbutaline (Brethine), albuterol (Ventolin and Proventil), asthma medications
  • Raloxifene (Evista), an osteoporosis treatment
  • Nifedipine (Procardia), a treatment for angina and high blood pressure
  • Neostigmine (Prostigmine), used for myasthenia gravis

Risk factors: Here are the factors which are increasing your risk of muscle cramps:

  • Medical conditions: If you have liver, nerve or thyroid disorders or you suffer from diabetes, then you have increased risk of getting cramps.
  • Pregnancy: When women are in their pregnancy, and then are very common to have cramps. [8]
  • Dehydration: Athletes who become dehydrated and fatigued while participating in warm weather sports frequently develop cramps. [1,2,3,4]
  • Age: It is known fact that the older people lose muscle mass so the remaining muscle can get overstressed and muscle cramps come more easily. [9]


[1] The Sports Institute. Muscle Cramping In the Heat. Retrieved from

[2] Maughan RJ, Shirreffs SM. Muscle cramping during exercise: Causes, solutions, and questions remaining. Sports Medicine. 2019;49:115-24.

[3] Schallig W, Levels K, Daanen HAM. The influence of heat on the occurrence of exercise associated muscle cramps: a review. Sport en Geneeskunde. 2017;50(1):30-9.

[4] Miller KC, Stone MS, Huxel KC, Edwards JE. Exercise-associated muscle cramps: Causes, treatment, and prevention. Sports Health. 2010;2(4):279–83.

[5] Garrison SR, Allan GM, Sekhon RK, et al. Magnesium for skeletal muscle cramps. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2012;2012(9):CD009402.

[6] Levin MC. Muscle cramps. MSD Manual. 2019. Retrieved from

[7] Di Stasi SL, MacLeod TD, Winters JD, Binder-Macleod SA. Effects of statins on skeletal muscle: A perspective for physical therapists. Physical Therapy. 2010;90(10):1530–42.

[8] Mansouri A, Bahrami-Vazir E, Mohammad-Alizadeh-Charandabi S, et al. The relationship between leg muscle cramps and sleep quality in pregnant women visited the health centers in Tabriz. Shiraz E-Medical Journal. 2019;20(7):e84279.

[9] Maisonneuve H, Chambe J, Delacour C, et al. Prevalence of cramps in patients over the age of 60 in primary care : a cross sectional study. BMC Family Practice. 2016.

Dr. Emil Sarsath (aka) Vijila, a licensed naturopathic doctor (BSMS) who always ensures his patients receive compassionate, and individualized care. He has extensive experience in primary care, digestive health, mental health, nervous system disorder and more.Area of Expertise – Naturopathic Medicine, Whole Foods-based Nutrition, Siddha, Panchakarma.She is always available through [email protected]


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