PIAA fall sport teams began their first week of official practice a few weeks ago – including double sessions for high school football. While a warm August may be a wonderful time of year to swim and kayak, it may not offer the best temperature and humidity for athletes playing football or soccer. One common problem these athletes suffer from is severe muscle cramping. This year was not exception as many players limped off the practice field in pain and many concerned players, parents and grandparents repeatedly ask me about the problem. What exactly is a muscle cramp? Why does it happen? How can it be prevented?
A muscle cramp is defined as an involuntary contraction or spasm of a muscle that will not relax. The tight muscle spasm is painful and debilitating. It can involve all or part of the muscle and groups of muscles. The most common muscles affected by muscle cramps are: gastrocnemius (back of lower leg/calf), hamstring (back of thigh), and quadriceps (front of thigh). Cramps can also occur in the abdomen, rib cage, feet, hands, and arms. They can last a few seconds or 15+ minutes. They can occur once or multiple times. It can cause a very tight spasm or small little twitches.
Although the exact cause may be unknown at this time, there are several theories why muscle cramps occur. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, when a muscle is flexible and conditioned, the muscle fibers are capable of changing length rapidly and repeatedly without stress on the tissue. Also, overall poor conditioning or overexertion of a specific muscle leads to poor oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange and build up of lactic acid and cause a muscle spasm. Also, this process can alter muscle spindle reflex activity and stimulate the spinal cord to send a message to the muscle to contract. If uncontrolled this leads to cramps and spasm.
Muscle cramps are more common in hot weather due to loss of body fluids, salts, minerals, potassium, magnesium and calcium. This leads to an electrolyte imbalance which can cause a muscle to spasm.
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This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at TCMC.