HEALTH ADVICE: Here's a few tips for managing cramps and some background as to why they may occur
HEALTH ADVICE: Here's a few tips for managing cramps and some background as to why they may occur Jovanmandic

Learn how to manage your cramps

CRAMPS are fairly common among older Australians; almost 50 per cent of us suffer the often incredibly painful spasming of the muscles.

They are an involuntary and painful contraction of a skeletal muscle which can last for anywhere between seconds and a few minutes.

What causes them is still a mystery says Professor Alan Hayes, Assistant Dean of the Western Centre for Health Research and Medicine at Victoria University and Deputy Director of the Australian Institute for Muscoskeltal Science.

"The common theory is they are neurological in nature," he said. "Our muscles get activated by neurons in the spinal cord, called alcomon neurons, and it seems they over-fire more than they should."

Cramps tend to occur at night and mostly affect the calf area. "Certain disorders affect certain parts of the body, but certainly cramps in general tend to affect the lower extremities," Professor Hayes added.

"We do loose motor neurons as we age. It may be then that there is less there carrying a larger load, so they fire up more often. We certainly loose more motor neurons in our legs than in our arms which is why it may occur in our legs.

"One of the difficulties with the causes is a lot of other causes like electrolyte deficiencies, you argue that if they occur, they should occur everywhere, but we really only get cramps generally in our legs and most commonly in our calves."

Sitting for long periods with your knee bent can also bring on a cramp.

Some tips for managing cramps are:

  • During the day stretch the leg muscles out is one way to get relief from a cramp and help avoid cramps occurring in the first place.
  • Pre-stretch your calf muscles before you go to bed. Try this stretch - keep your feet flat on the floor, then carefully lean forward and touch a wall.
  • Keep well hydrated, particularly during the hotter months.
  • Lose weight.

He says there is no real evidence that taking magnesium or salt is useful unless you have an electrolyte issue.

"If they are getting worse and worse, there may be an underlying condition," Professor Hayes said. "They appear to be more prevalent in diabetics and can be more prevalent in hypertension and venous insufficiency. Cramps have been linked diuretics, aerosol beta agonists and some statins which in some people does cause lower leg weakness."

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