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What Causes Muscle Cramping?

Many people experience muscle cramping during or after exercise which can be uncomfortable and alarming. A muscle cramp is a sudden, involuntary contraction of the muscle that can last for seconds or for minutes. Whether it’s a small muscle cramp or full body cramping, there isn’t an exact reason proven yet as to the cause of it.  However, there are a couple of hypotheses as to why one would have cramping during or after exercise.

Risk Factors:  There are several factors that might play into muscle cramping including but not limited to age, heat and humidity, type of sporting activity (fatigue level), hydration status, medication side effects, and medical conditions.  Below we outline a couple of potential causes.

1. Electrolyte imbalance and hydration:  Studies have found that some athletes that drink electrolyte-rich beverages instead of just plain water can take longer to cramp during endurance sports indicating a correlation with electrolyte loss (through sweating) and higher incidence of cramping.  But, in these studies, there were athletes who were well hydrated and had good electrolyte consumption who still cramped.  That leads us to the next hypothesis:  Altered neuromuscular control (fatigue)

2. Altered neuromuscular control:  Because not everyone who has muscle cramping is dehydrated or experiencing an electrolyte imbalance, there has to be another trigger for muscle cramping. It is tough to really study this hypothesis but it seems that repetitively using a muscle can cause fatigue, which in turn, may result in cramping due to the inefficiency of the nerve input.  Whether it’s smaller muscle groups engaging in repetitious contractions (like writing), larger muscle groups (like with endurance athletes), or individuals who are engaging in a new movement or activity (using muscles they are not used to using repetitively), the fatigue can affect the efficiency of the contraction/relaxation process that occurs during muscular contractions, resulting in cramping.


As for preventing muscle cramping, there is not a specific protocol that can be followed to fully prevent it from happening. It is suggested that making sure you are providing yourself with a well-rounded diet including hydrating and ensuring proper electrolyte intake (especially magnesium and potassium) on a daily basis (not just during your sporting activities) along with proper conditioning/fitness specific to your sport or activity level, can potentially decrease your risk for cramping.


Many times, muscle cramps will go away on their own within a few seconds but you can try lightly stretching the area or massaging it to allow for relaxation.  Replenishing electrolytes and continued gentle stretching after the cramping may assist as well.

If you have questions or concerns about muscle cramping, please call Omaha Physical Therapy Institute today!

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Maughan RJ, Shirreffs SM. Muscle Cramping During Exercise: Causes, Solutions, and Questions Remaining. Sports Med. 49(Suppl 2):115-24, 2019

Jung A, Bishop P, Al-Nawwas A, Dale R. Influence of hydration and electrolyte supplementation on incidence and time to onset of exercise-associated muscle cramps. Journal of Athletic Training. 40(2):71-5, 2005

Minetto M, Holobar A, Botter A, Ravenni R, Farina D. Mechanisms of cramp contractions: peripheral or central generation. J Physiol. 589(23):5759-7, 2011

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