How does a cramp occur?
Muscles exist of a large number of muscle cells. With the help of mineral ions, also called electrolytes, your brain sends electric impulses via the nerve pathway to those muscle cells. This chemical energy gets transformed into mechanical energy within the cells: Your muscles react and move your skeleton.
In case of miscommunication meaning that the nerves send too many, too strong or just wrong signals or that muscle cells cannot process the correct signals adequately your muscles cannot react properly. This leads to erratic, lagged or conflicting contractions which we perceive as painful cramps.
Why do miscommunications occur?
1. Mineral deficiency
There are several causes for a muscle cramp. Often, it is tied to a magnesium deficiency. In fact, the cause of a cramp often is an impaired concentration of electrolytes however, it does not always have to be magnesium.
Through sweat, your body loses a lot of fluids during exercise and thus important minerals. To keep your body supplied with minerals during a workout, it is critical to drink enough water before, during and after training. Water provides essential minerals such as sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. They all play a role in the communication between the nervous and muscular system and therefore are important.
However, the concentration of electrolytes does not have to be causal itself. In general, it can also be dehydration. Without enough liquid, your body cannot transport nutrients smoothly which is also the case for minerals. So it might be that your minerals are in balance but that there is not enough liquid for them to reach their destination.
Both aforementioned reasons are mainly responsible for muscle cramps which is why we again want to point to the huge importance of sufficient hydration.
3. Blood flow disorder
Another major factor is an impaired blood flow, e.g. due to bad posture and form, one-sided loading or just shoes that are too tight. During a workout, your muscles need oxygen as fuel to convert chemical energy into mechanical energy. If the blood vessels do not convey enough oxygen, muscle cells cannot process impulses correctly and tense up.
Training for too long can also lead to muscle spasm. After too intense effort, meaning that you train well beyond muscle fatigue, your muscle cells are irritated. This makes them hypersensitive for any orders of the brain: the electronic signals are too strong for the drained muscle cells and cannot be processed properly.
Very cold temperatures especially sudden changes from warm to cold can lead to heavy tension within muscles which in turn can eventually result in a cramp.
6. Anatomical and medical reasons
Other and rather rare reasons can be misalignments in legs, hips or trunk as well as constrained nerves and vessels but also illnesses from a simple cold to diabetes and side effects of drugs. Whenever you are suspicious of those factors, you should consult a doctor.
How can I treat cramps?
Many people are almost paralyzed when they experience muscle spasm and just hold the aching spot. Instead, the opposite is necessary: Active but cautious stretching of the muscle and activation of the antagonistic muscle to slowly release the contraction.
For example, if your calf hurts one of the most common cramps it is useful to pull your toes towards yourself and thus tense its antagonistic muscle on the shin. In doing so, the calf gets stretched and relaxed. It can also be helpful to carefully massage it lengthways. As soon as the tension ceases, you should slowly move the muscle again to remove potential contraction residues.
The best treatment however still is prevention. Besides a sufficient intake of fluids and minerals which is needed to ensure supply and transmission of electrolytes, two aspects of training are often neglected: A warm up before the workout and a thorough stretching afterwards.
Fresh fruit such as apples or fruit juices (ideally freshly squeezed) are also often used as a preventive. This is because fruit contains a lot of minerals which your body can utilize quickly due to the fruit sugar.
Warm and cold showers as wells as heat baths can also be quite helpful to accustom the muscle to temperature changes and to increase blood flow.