Is pain holding you back? Try these remedies for muscle cramps

Credit: Alex Livesey/Allsport

"I get excruciating cramps when I play tennis in the heat. Could something be wrong with my diet?"

"I cramped so badly during the marathon, I had to quit a few yards from the finish line. I just couldn't go any further."

If you've ever experienced the excruciating pain of a severe muscle cramp, you may fearfully wonder if it will strike again. You may also wonder if nutrition imbalances are at the root of the problem and if diet changes could be the simple solution.

Muscle cramps are poorly understood. Historically, no one has been able to predictably cause a muscle to cramp, which has hindered the ability to study the underlying mechanisms that contribute to these unpredictable spasms. Recently, however, researchers have found a way to cause cramps. Hopefully, this advance will open the door for more research on ways to prevent them.

We do know that muscle cramps most commonly occur among athletes who work their muscles to the point of exhaustion. The overexertion theory of muscle cramps goes like this: When a muscle gets tired, the numerous muscle fibers that comprise the muscle fail to contract in a synchronized rhythm. This failure is likely related to overstimulation from the nerves that trigger the muscles to contract.

What to do

What should you do if you get a cramp? Popular remedies include massage, stretching, acupressure (relaxing the affected muscle by applying pressure to it) and giving yourself a hard pinch squarely on the upper lip.

What about nutritional remedies? Previous theories have suggested that cramping is related to fluid loss and electrolyte imbalance. However, these theories do not always hold true. For example, musicians, who do not usually get sweaty, often complain of muscle cramps. Nonetheless, if you are plagued by cramps, you should at least rule out any possible cause. Here are a few food tips to help you rule out theoretical nutritional causes.

Theory #1: lack of water
Cramps often occur when an athlete is dehydrated. However, even athletes who are well-hydrated get cramps. To reduce the risk of dehydration-associated cramps, simply drink more than enough fluids before, during and after exercise. On a daily basis, drink enough fluids so you have to urinate every two to four hours. Your urine should be light-colored and copious. During extended exercise, drink as much as tolerated optimally 3 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes.

Theory #2: lack of calcium
Calcium plays an essential role in muscle contractions. Anecdotal stories suggest that athletes who eliminate calcium-rich dairy products can become plagued by muscle cramps. For example, a ballet dancer who reintroduced yogurt and skim milk to her diet reports her cramps disappeared. A mountaineer eliminated his muscle cramps by taking calcium-rich Tums.

Exercise scientists question the validity of these anecdotes, believing a calcium imbalance is unlikely to be the cause of muscle cramps. After all, the bones are a calcium reservoir and can supply the body with what it needs for proper muscle contractions. Nevertheless, to rule out any possible link between a calcium-poor diet and muscle cramps, I recommend that athletes plagued by cramps consume calcium-rich foods such as low-fat milk and yogurt at least twice a day. This good nutritional practice certainly won't hurt and may possibly help.

Theory #3: lack of sodium
Many health-conscious athletes restrict their salt intake on a daily basis, believing this will help prevent blood-pressure problems. However, if these athletes are losing a significant amount of sodium through sweat, they may be putting themselves at risk for developing a sodium imbalance that could contribute to cramps. This situation is most likely to occur in extreme sports such as an Ironman triathlon or 100-mile trail run, particularly if the athletes have consumed only plain water during the event no sodium-containing food or beverage.

Theory #4: lack of potassium
Athletes who sweat heavily may lose some potassium, but are unlikely to become potassium-depleted. Even if they did, the whole body would be affected not just one muscle. Nevertheless, eating more potassium-rich fruits and vegetables will hurt no one.

Theory #5: lack of pickle juice
Some football players and athletic trainers swear that 2 ounces of pickle juice, taken 10 minutes before exercise, prevents cramps. The reasons are unknown and untested, but there's no harm in trying.

The diet theories above are only suggestions, not proven solutions. However, you might want to experiment with these dietary tips if you repeatedly suffer from muscle cramps.

Adding extra fluids, low-fat dairy products, a sprinkling of salt, extra fruits and vegetables or even some pickle juice certainly won't harm you and may possibly resolve the worrisome problem. I also recommend that you consult a physical therapist, athletic trainer or coach regarding proper stretching and training techniques. Nutrition may play no role at all.

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