The causes, treatments and myths behind muscle cramps

2014-12-16 09:50:43 by Dr. Joe Congeni - Director of Sports Medicine, as posted on the blog.

Image by Les Stockton - CC/Flickr Image by Les Stockton - CC/Flickr

With the fall sports season quickly approaching, I wanted to educate our readers on the causes, treatments and myths about muscle cramps. There are new studies out there that debunk many of these myths.

Today, I had the chance to speak with WAKR host Ray Horner about this topic. We now are beginning to understand that itís not so much dehydration, but instead electrolyte loss.

Below is an audio file and transcript of our discussion.

Horner: Now, Dr. Joe Congeni, Sports Medicine Center at Akron Childrenís Hospital. Joe, time of the year for practices and then the fall sports get going. Often when Iím doing football games on the radio, weíll see a lot of the cramping and such. You wanted to do a little education with us on the cramping side, this morning?

Dr. Congeni: Yeah, you know thatís the time you can get your filler in and talk about other things, while weíre out there tending to those muscle cramps.

Horner: Pointing those toes, right?

Dr. Congeni: Itís not just you. I know you do a lot of football telecasts. If you go to soccer games this time of year, thereíll be just about as many soccer cramps, too. So, itís any of the real endurance sports.

Dr. Joe Congeni Dr. Joe Congeni

We donít have it all the way nailed down yet, but there are a few new studies that I wanted to touch on this morning and just talk about three things: the causes, the treatment of cramps and the myths.

There are a couple of myths that have been debunked about cramps.

So, No. 1, as far as causes, it falls into two categories pretty evenly, Ray. The one is just skeletal muscle overload or fatigue. The muscles tire out.

Thatís why you see it a lot in two-way players that are going both ways, or you see it in the third or fourth quarters when these muscles are overloaded and fatigued.

And, itís maddening to coaches Ďcause thereís whispering on the sidelines, ďHey your teamís out of shape thatís why youíre cramping so much.Ē So muscle fatigue is the No. 1 cause.

And the other is not truly dehydration, but weíre beginning to understand that a lot of it is from electrolyte loss or excessive sweat loss.

There are certain athletes, and weíve talked about this a little before, who are called ďsalty sweaters.Ē They have a lot of salt ó sodium ó in their sweat and they sweat a lot.

The research in the last few years is really showing that sodium is the bigger electrolyte here, rather than a lot of talk about potassium and calcium from the past.

But, the recent studies have shown itís mainly sodium, or salt, thatís lost. So, those are the two causes.

And, a lot of people wonder what do we do treatment-wise when we go out there. By the time kids are cramping, itís hard for the prevention issues. So, generally what we do is we find out what muscle itís in.

Most of the time, Ray, itís in the calf muscle or hamstring ó No. 1 and 2, ó but we will see quad cramps, weíll see groin cramps and one thatís really hard to stretch out are abdominal cramps.

We try to stretch the muscles, massage the muscles and massage out the cramp. No. 2, we ice the affected muscles, which is important. No. 3, we actually try to contract the muscles on the opposite side.

So if itís a hamstring, we try to get them to contract the quad and thatíll relax the hamstring.

And then, of course, you have to rehydrate them with sodium solutions, or with some of the rehydrating solutions that are out there. Those are the treatments.

In the area of the myths, this is where some of the research . It really is more the electrolytes than dehydration. We probably were looking at dehydration too much, and recent studies have said it isnít just purely dehydration.

One of the myths is kids are always given fruit, like bananas, very frequently. One study showed it takes 30 minutes for anything that you ingest like bananas or fruit to actually have any affect on potassium or sodium.

That may not be bad for pregame meals and half time to use bananas and stuff, but itís not going to help on the sidelines.

And No. 2: the issue of pickle juice ó my favorite one. One study showed it takes about 20 minutes before thereís any benefit from pickle juice. Probably not unreasonable to try it, but weíd rather try the conventional rehydrating solutions first.

So, those are some of the issues about the darn cramps that are gonna be frustrating and difficult and painful for the athletes that youíll be covering in the next few weeks.

Horner: No doubt about it. Alright, Joe, weíll check you out on the sidelines for sure, and weíll see you next week.

Dr. Congeni: Itís getting closer and closer isnít it? Looking forward to seeing you, Ray.

Horner: It is. Alright. Dr. Joe Congeni from Sports Medicine Center at Childrenís Hospital joining us, 1590 WAKR.

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