Perspective

Muscle cramps

Scene

The Jamaican team doctor said Usain Bolt had to pull up in the 4x100m relay due to cramp in his hamstring. Bolt’s superlative sprinting career ended in disappointment when he collapsed to the track injured while he ran the final leg in the 4x100m final. The Great Britain quartet ended up beating the USA in a dramatic race while Bolt shrugged aside organisers who brought on a wheelchair for him and was able to limp across the line. The deed was done, the god of the tracks was brought to his knees by muscle cramps!

Scene 2

Things are no longer at ease with Prof ICT, as a matter of fact, things are falling apart regarding his health. It’s as if he’s been pierced by the ‘’Arrow of God’’. Every night, he groans in pain when unexplainable muscle cramps gets the better of him. He is ‘’A Man of the People’’ but muscle cramp is no respecter of persons.

What it is

A cramp is an involuntary and forcibly contracted muscle, which does not relax. It is characterised by a sudden tight and intense pain, which remains for as long as the muscle is locked into spasm. Muscles, which span two joints, are most prone to cramping and cramps can affect any muscle, or group of muscles, which are under our voluntary control (known as the skeletal muscles).

The process

• muscles are basically bundles of fibres, which contract and expand to produce movement. Stretching lengthens muscle fibres so that they can contract and tighten more effectively during exercise. When someone with a poorly conditioned body embarks on a vigorous exercise programme without doing some form of stretching exercises beforehand, the inevitable result is muscle fatigue. This, in turn, leads to an alteration in spinal neural reflex activity, so that the electrical signals are mixed up.

• over-exertion causes a severe reduction in a muscle’s oxygen supply, which leads to a build-up of waste product and spasm. When a cramp begins, the spinal cord stimulates the muscle to keep contracting, leading to severe pain.

• muscle cramps are much more likely to occur when exercising in very hot weather because sweating drains the body’s fluids and also depletes essential supplies of salt and minerals such as magnesium, potassium and calcium. Loss of these essential nutrients can cause a muscle to go into spasm.

Muscles affected

• back of lower leg/calf muscles – known as the gastrocnemius.

• front of thigh muscles – known as quadriceps.

• inner thigh muscles – commonly referred to as hamstrings.

• It is also very common for people to experience cramps in the hands, arms, feet and abdomen and along the entire rib cage.

The feeling

• A cramped muscle may feel very hard to the touch and may even look visibly distorted beneath the skin. The intense pain may last for only a few seconds or up to 15-20 minutes and there may be repeated bouts of cramp over a short period of time.

Who is it likely to happen to?

Muscle cramps can occur anywhere, anytime to anyone. It respects no one. The young , old, active or sedentary could develop a muscle cramp doing just about anything.” However, infants, the elderly, the overweight, and athletes are at the greatest risk for muscle cramps.

Older people are generally more susceptible, this is due to normal muscle loss due to the ageing process (known as atrophy) which begins in the mid-40s and accelerates with inactivity. With ageing, muscles are no longer able to work as hard or as quickly as they used to. The body also loses some of its sense of thirst and its ability to sense and respond to changes in temperature.

Causes

• Biomechanical. Leg cramps can be associated with flat feet or other structural abnormalities of the legs and feet. Cramps are also more common in people who spend too much time sitting, or standing on concrete flooring.

• Neurological. Several neurological conditions can increase muscle cramping, especially Parkinson’s disease.

• Dehydration. Dehydration from diuretics or excessive sweating may lead to muscle cramps.

• Electrolyte disorders. -Low blood levels of potassium, calcium or magnesium are associated with muscle cramping.

• Pregnancy.

Muscle cramps are more common during pregnancy, possibly due to magnesium depletion.

• Metabolic disorders. – Diabetes, hypoglycemia, alcoholism, and thyroid disease are associated with muscle cramping.

• Peripheral artery disease.

Peripheral artery disease can cause leg cramping during exercise, when the exercising muscles are not receiving sufficient blood flow.

• Dialysis (a form of treatment for sick kidneys) People on dialysis are extremely prone to muscle cramping, particularly during treatment.

• Athletic activity. Prolonged or strenuous athletic activity, especially during hot, humid weather, can trigger muscle cramps.

These are thought to be due to the dehydration and electrolyte disturbances that are common to this kind of activity. Acclimating to the heat, as well as staying well-hydrated (and sometimes, using electrolyte replacement) can help to prevent this type of muscle cramping.

• Idiopathic. (Unknown factor) The large majority of muscle cramps cannot be attributed to any identifiable cause. When doctors don’t know the cause of a medical phenomenon, they say it is “idiopathic,” which sounds more sophisticated than saying, “I don’t know.”

Immediate actions to take

Cramps usually go away on their own without medical intervention. The first action to take is to stop doing whatever activity triggered the cramp – unless you were asleep in bed when your muscles went into spasm! Then, gently stretch and massage the cramping muscle, holding it in the stretched position until the cramp stops. If the muscles are tight or tense, apply HEAT. If they are sore or tender, apply COLD. Please visit your doctor for a comprehensive investigation into the cause(s) of your peculiar spasm.

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