It was during an inter-street soccer competition that Ehondon Eguavoen, one of the players suddenly fell on the field holding his thigh.
From his disposition, it was evident that he was reeling in pain as his other teammates rallied around him and took him out of the primary school field venue of the competition.
A member of the team, Babatunde, told spectators that Equavoen suffered a ‘muscle pull’, the name for muscle cramp in the local parlance.
Dr Omowumi Kayode of the Department of Medicine, University of Ilorin Teaching Hospital (UITH), described muscle cramp, also known as muscle spasm or charley horse, as a sudden and involuntary contraction of one or more of the muscles, a common problem experienced by many people from time to time.
“When one or more of your muscles feel like they’re contracting or getting tight without any voluntary action from you and you can’t get them to relax, that’s a muscle cramp. Muscle cramps happen for a few different reasons, but most commonly when muscles can’t relax properly.
“The intense pain can awaken you if you are asleep or make it difficult for you to move or walk during the day. Apart from the pain, you can tell that a muscle is cramping when it feels hard or it looks like it’s bulging. Though generally harmless, muscle cramps can make it temporarily impossible to use the affected muscle,” he added.
The family physician said, “Most muscle cramps develop in the leg muscles, particularly in the calf, but can also be experienced in other parts of the body like the abdomen, arms, hands, feet, hamstrings, or the back of the thighs and quadriceps, or the front of the thigh.
Dr Omowumi said fatigue (overuse of a muscle), long periods of exercise or physical labour, particularly in hot weather, or simply holding a position for a prolonged period, can lead to it.
Also, inadequate blood supply, which is the narrowing of the arteries that deliver blood to the legs (arteriosclerosis of the extremities), can produce cramp-like pain in the legs and feet while exercising, and usually goes away soon after you stop exercising.
He said compression of nerves in the spine (lumbar stenosis) can also cause cramp-like pain in your legs, which usually worsens the longer you walk; and mineral depletion as a result of too little potassium, calcium, or magnesium in your diet.
He explained that people who participate in sports in warm weather are likely to experience cramps in the feet and hands because of dehydration, which results in the reduction of muscle flexibility, leading to cramps.
“During pregnancy, while fatigue, morning sickness, and back pain are frequent complaints, raised hormonal levels also cause the retention of water, resulting in swollen legs.
“Cramps occur because the cells are stressed with excess fluid and movement becomes a problem. Fluid retention also causes partial blockage of the blood flow to different parts of the body.
“Age. When we age, we begin to lose muscle mass, and the remaining muscle mass is overstressed. In most cases, the elderly or senior citizens experience cramps in the hands and feet because the muscles can no longer support their weight,” he added.
The expert said recent findings indicate that there are medical conditions that increase the risk of cramps of the feet and hands and listed the diseases to include thyroid disorders, liver problems, nerve diseases, and diabetes.
He said in addition, brain disorders and conditions such as dystonia, multiple sclerosis, and Huntington disease can contribute to the cramps.
The medical expert said muscle cramps can usually be treated at home with self-care measures, which include steps to be taken to prevent them from happening in the first place.
“Most types of muscle cramps don’t require medical attention and go away in a few seconds or minutes. These muscle cramp remedies can help you feel better and get back to your normal routine.
“However, when it’s interfering with your daily life and does not respond to the home remedies, seek medical advice as soon as possible,” he said.
How stretching helps
He explained that when a muscle cramp hits, you should stop doing the activity that’s causing it and stretch it out.
According to him, this is one of the best ways to get immediate relief from muscle cramps.
“Keep in mind that it’s important to stretch before and after you exercise, as well. You can stretch the cramped muscle and gently rub and massage it to help it relax. If you have a calf cramp or charley horse, stand up and put your weight on the leg with the cramp, and gently bend your knee.
“With a cramped leg, sit on the floor with your leg or foot stretched out in front of you. Keep your leg straight while you gently pull your foot back towards you. If you are experiencing cramps in your hand, press the hand on the wall with fingers facing down.”
Massage the Muscle: After stretching, you should consider massaging the muscle cramp for relief. Using a roller or simply your hands, gently massage the muscles to loosen them up.
Cold Compress: Applying cold is another great way to treat muscle cramps. Once the pain subsides a little after heat application, you can grab an ice pack or a bag of ice and put it on the cramping muscle. Remember to wrap the ice in a towel.
You can also try massaging the cramp with the ice pack to loosen up the muscle.
Warm Compress: When you put a heating pad on areas affected by cramps, the temperature would rise gradually and the pain can be relieved as the heat relaxes the muscles and encourages blood flow. If the pain does not subside after 10 minutes of application, you can wait for half an hour before applying again.
The effect of a warm compress may be increased when having a gentle massage on the affected area as well.
Elevate the affected part: If your muscle cramp is in an area that you can elevate, like your leg or foot, prop it up. Keep it positioned this way until the cramp starts to subside.
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Drink Water: A way to get relief from muscle cramps before they even begin is to drink enough water. Dehydration often plays a part in muscle cramps, so drinking enough water throughout the day can help keep them at bay.
Drinking fluids while you have a cramp helps the muscles contract and relax. When you keep hydrated, your muscle cells also stay hydrated and are less irritable or uncomfortable, he explained.
Dr Omowumi said, “There are various muscle relaxant medications and pain killers like paracetamol in the market which are essential in alleviating stiff muscle conditions.”
He listed prevention steps to include stretching your muscles before and after an extended period.
If you tend to have leg cramps at night, stretch before bedtime. Light exercise, such as riding a stationary bicycle for a few minutes before bedtime, also may help prevent cramps while you’re sleeping.
Eating bananas and other fruits is also part of it. Any electrolyte imbalance in the system caused by a dietary imbalance, or excessive sweating can affect the function of the muscles.
Low levels of potassium or sodium can make you susceptible to cramps. Bananas contain a high level of potassium, and eating a banana every day will help in balancing your potassium and sodium levels.
Take plenty of fluids, as dehydration is known to be a common cause due to sweating a lot. Drink plenty of liquids every day, but the amount depends on what you eat, your sex, your level of activity, the weather, your health, your age, and the medications you take.
Fluids help your muscles contract and relax and keep muscle cells hydrated and less irritable.
When to see a doctor
In most cases, Dr Omowumi said, “muscle cramps are very brief and don’t require medical attention. However, you may want to speak with your doctor if you experience severe pain along with your muscle cramps.
“Muscle cramping doesn’t go away after stretching and other home remedies. You get muscle cramps regularly and often. Your muscle cramps last a long time before subsiding and are associated with leg swelling, redness or skin changes. Your doctor will see if there could be another cause for the muscle cramps that are being overlooked.”
He added that muscle cramps that are severe and recurring could be a sign of a circulatory problem or an issue with metabolism, nerves, medications, or nutrition.