Why You Get Sudden Muscle Cramps (And What You Can Do About It)

Why You Get Sudden Muscle Cramps (And What You Can Do About It)

No matter what type of shape you’re in or your age, we’re all prone to those spontaneous, out-of-nowhere muscle cramps that knock you down for a few seconds. It usually comes and goes, but if you’ve ever wondered what’s going on, the Wall Street Journal has some answers.

Picture: Army Medicine/Flickr

In most cases, leg cramps are nothing to worry about, and it usually just has to do with dehydration:

Dehydration, whether due to insufficient fluid intake or sustained and heavy exercise, is a prime and sometimes overlooked culprit, says Dr. Morrissey. Lack of fluids causes a loss of electrolytes — sodium, potassium and calcium, to name a few — and “if your electrolytes are out of whack, you can have spasms.”

Other causes include “mechanical stress on muscles” from standing for long periods, or muscle fatigue from walking on a hard surface. Both can result in nocturnal cramps. The toxins ingested by heavy smokers and the electrolyte imbalances that can result from excessive alcohol consumption may also be a source of sudden muscle cramps.

In general, if it’s not a sustained or repeating problem, sudden muscle cramps aren’t anything to worry about. If you get them infrequently but they’re still annoying, you can do a couple simple things to stop muscle cramps from happening:

In large part, Dr. Morrissey says, stay hydrated and maintain a good balance of electrolytes. For people who tend to get muscle cramps at night, he suggests drinking Gatorade or Vitaminwater (both of which contain electrolytes) before retiring at night. Another preventive measure involves doing muscle-strengthening exercises before going to bed.

As for folk cures like salt in your socks or pickle juice? They’re probably not more helpful than good old hydration. Head over to the Wall Street Journal for the full breakdown.

Quick Cures/Quack Cures: Mystery Muscle Cramps [Wall Street Journal]


  • Er… We aren’t all prone to muscle cramps.. I’ve never ever had one @ age 25.. There’s very clear causes as even your quotes say – such as dehydration, sodium levels, probably a thousand other things..

    My point is just that you shouldn’t just accept you get muscle cramps.. There IS a cause and you should be addressing it, not reassuring yourself everything is fine.

      • I go to the gym daily.. There is a difference between working out hard and working out while not looking after your body, of which the pain is merely a symptom, and thinking that this pain somehow indicates you’re doing well at your exercise.

        a hyperbole would be an engineer who’s building sways dangerously in the wind and him thinking to himself this meant he’d built it really well.

        • You going to tell professional athletes they don’t look after there body? AFL, NRL, NHL, Tennis, the list goes on, all of which are professional athletes suffer from cramp and im sure they look after there body a lot more then the regular joe as it’s the way they make a living.
          You can drink as much as you want of whatever you want but in the end cramps are going to happen sooner or later no matter how fit you are, if you push beyond your limits you will get cramps.
          Not saying it means you have done your exercise well or better or anything but when even pro’s get them you can’t say it’s about looking after your body

          • Er, yes. I would say they don’t do a large degree. Infact they’re paid such large sums of money precisely because they can, do and will encounter exceptionally frequent injury and exhaustion. They work around it because thats their job. If you too are making several hundred k a year playing sports, a few cramps is probably not a major concern..

            But let’s face it. You don’t. This is Life Hacker.

          • even at levels below players suffer from cramps. In a competitive U/16 level you will even see players suffering from cramp on a regular basis and they are not been paid. Cramps have nothing to do with injuries and/or even exhaustion. I have cramped up before on multiple different occasions whilst playing sport and still had plenty of energy left.

            Lets face it, no matter who you are, you will suffer from cramps, fit or not, active or lazy. It’s going to happen. Drink as much water as you like at one point it will happen

          • Right. They’re cramping more than likely – and as the article says – because they are dehydrated or have too much sodium in their diet, not because they’re professional grade athletes. Unless under 16’s are exercising all day, nearly every day of the week, there’s very few truly valid “excuses”.

          • You going to tell professional athletes they don’t look after there body? You answered your own rhetorical question really. No athletes do not really take the best care of their bodies, they regularly push their bodies ‘beyond’ their limits in order to be successful, which is why the number of ex-football players (all codes really) with back or joint problems resulting from the apathetic way in which they looked after their bodies

          • I’d say they take the best care possible, but as you say – only so much can be done.

  • I get them in my legs first thing in the morning, as I’m stretching sometimes. It’s not nice, and I can’t really make sure to hydrate while I sleep 🙁

    • You won’t lose that much water while you sleep, you’re entirely inactive.. More likely its a dietary issue, or you just are generally dehydrated on a regular basis.

      Remember, if you feel thirsty – you’re already very dehydrated. Ideally, you should feel a true thirst very infrequently.

  • Well maybe try getting more magnesium in your diet (preferrably in food, but pill form also might work). I used to get random hand and foot spasmy cramps and I drank tons of water etc. but there’s theories out there that magnesium can help prevent them and to be honest, seems to be working for me.

    • Among others! It’s definitely worth doing your homework in this regard, especially since overloading your body with more of one mineral it needs can lead to toxic symptoms.

  • Here is a tip for when you are having a muscle cramp/spasm in your leg right now:
    If you feel the cramp coming on you have only a few seconds to react, (the faster the better)
    but when you do feel it, try sitting or lying down and press your foot against a wall as hard as you can. Somehow this will relieve and stop the oncoming cramp, not completely, but you won’t be limping as much when you just let the cramp go.

    • This works in some cases of cramps in areas like the fore arms or calves/thighs mainly because it increases blood flow to that area temporarily.

      In cases where the cramping muscle is not a skeletal muscle (one you can control directly basically), this can actually make a cramp much much worse in intensity and duration.

  • I only get cramps in my feet. And only if it’s cold and I curl my toes. It’s torture when it happens though lol.
    Anyone ever woken up from a cramp?

  • Hmmm.. source of this article… wall st journal. Brilliant.
    And all you guys arguing over it.

    Cramps are caused physiologically due to the muscular filaments locking. Period.

    1. Neurological
    2. Potentiation
    3. Loss of tenatatic mechanisms.
    4. Trauma

    Most common are due to 2 & 3 of which we have hydration, electrolyte and pH imbalances. Key electrolytes are Na (loss due to sweat), hydration (changes in Osm as well of overheating and pH buffer loss). Other minor electrolyte imbalances/deficiencies are Mg and Ca which need to be included in severe situations.
    3. Can also be cause due to lack of glucose/insulin
    4. can be due to vasculopathies including DVT.

    Note that OVERHYDRATION with no electrolyte supplementation may also exacerbate the imbalances resulting in exacerbation of the condition. This was the basis of Gatorade. Named because it was U. Fl.’s dept of sport science & medicine that developed and researched it. Name of their team: the Gators. Used the formulation and voila, won the Orange Bowl and is why original gatorade is orange.

    Same basic formulation is used for the WHO’s rehydration therapy (for pathological diarrhea), as well a Hydralite (TM).

    Stop swapping wives’ tales and start reading Boron and Boleuap.

    • lack of magnesium common cause and cure, if yourexperiencing periodic, come and go cramps, and your not an elite sporstman/woman in which case you have proffessionals to advise you anyway……try magnesium or magnesium with calcium supplement, , presuming you have ruled out dehyradtion, drink more water regardless

Log in to comment on this story!