Question of the Week

What causes muscle cramps, and are there any cures?

Sun, 27th Feb 2011

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Glen Griffith asked:

Dear Dr Chris,


I have at times heard you on 702 and am impressed with your vast knowledge on seemingly any subject.

Please can you offer advice on how to cure/prevent leg cramps. I am a 69 year old male and have suffered leg cramps for many years. They occur mostly in bed at night and sometimes when dining out at night either at restaurants or at friends' homes. Apart from being very painful, it is rather embarrassing having these cramps in company.

I regularly take 4 magnesium chloride tablets daily, 2 in the morning and 2 at night as well as 600mg of potassium every morning. The potassium has been prescribed by my cardiologist as I am on hypertension medication containing a diuretic.


Kind Regards

Glen Griffith


We put this to Dr. Steven Huan, Ashley Montagu Fellow in the faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney...

Steven -   A muscle cramp is an involuntary and forcibly contracted muscle that simply does not relax.  When you use your muscles, you can control them voluntarily, in your legs and arms for example, and they can contract alternately, they can relax and then contract.  But when you lose control of this, this is the muscle cramp.  Now, about 95% of humans have muscle cramps, have experienced them at least sometimes, some more than others and it happens particularly in old age, but even children can have muscle cramps.  

Arm muscles - front, superficialNow what do we do to prevent them?  Well you have to be very careful about warming up before exercise, you have to be very careful that you don't become dehydrated.  That's why, when you see for example, tennis players getting leg cramps, that's because they're losing a lot of fluid when they're on the tennis court, especially in very, very hot weather.  So you have to remain hydrated.  

You also have to have a high level of potassium in your body because if you have low potassium, sometimes this can cause the muscle cramps, but also, low potassium can be associated with muscle weakness as well.

Diana -   Sometimes, muscles over-shorten themselves and this can be caused by low sodium, low potassium, dehydration, hypoglycaemia, and even hypocalcaemia, which is a lack of calcium.  So, maybe try having a drink and something to replace whatever nutrients you might be missing.  While sometimes it happens because the joint has been flexed too much and you just have to straighten it out or walk it off.


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I get leg cramps too.  I knock back a few swigs of liquid calcium and stamp my feet for a while (usually saying something like "ow, ow, ow") and it seems to work.

I'm curious to hear your answer Chris. An ounce of prevention... Donnah, Thu, 24th Feb 2011

I used to work in a potato processing warehouse lifting hundreds of sacks a day, stacking 40 on a pallet every few minutes. As a result i used to get really bad cramp in my hands and wrists when i was at home.
I started drinking bitter lemon, about a litre every day, and this completely alleviated my cramp.

My wife still drinks lots of bitter lemon now to alleviate neck cramp.

Hope that helps.  BSR, Sun, 27th Feb 2011

I have heard that adding a bit more salt (common table salt - sodium chloride) to the diet can reduce the incidence of cramps. I think that was the advice my dad got from a British Navy doctor in the 1970's. Certainly if I'm suffering from cramp then I'll add a fifth of a teaspoon of salt to a large glass of water and drink that. It seems to help.

Bizarrely, salt has become highly politicised in recent years. In some countries (like the UK) salt is seemingly the root of all evil, while other countries such as Italy seem to continue eating very salty food without a care in the world. To the best of my knowledge the research was that in some people with pre-exisiting high blood pressure reduction of salt helped reduce their blood pressure. I didn't think there was really much evidence that reducing salt in the population at large would necessarily be that beneficial. But I am not a (medical) doctor... techmind, Sun, 27th Feb 2011

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