Moving your muscles is a core biological function that allows you to go about your life. From riding a bicycle to washing the dishes, your muscles help make movement possible. To achieve this goal, muscles perform two maneuvers: contracting and relaxing. With your brain as the director, your muscles contract and relax countless times throughout the day depending on the work you do.1
Contraction occurs when your nervous system sends stimuli into the desired muscle. This allows calcium to be released into the muscles you wish to use, causing them to shorten. On the opposite end, the relaxed muscles release an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase, allowing the muscle to lengthen and ease up.2 To allow your body to move properly, your muscles perform both of these actions simultaneously.
As mentioned earlier, contracting and relaxing are two concurrent actions that allow muscles to perform their intended jobs. However, what happens when the relaxed muscles contract as well? The result is cramps, commonly known as a “charley horse.”3
Cramps are sudden and involuntary contraction of one or more supposedly relaxed muscles, rendering the affected area temporarily impossible to use. The most distinguishable symptom is a sharp pain and if you touch it, you may feel a hard lump of tissue beneath the skin.4 Cramps mainly occur due to muscle overuse or when you’re holding a position for a prolonged period of time. Other possible reasons include:5
• Inadequate blood supply — Narrowing of the arteries in your legs can produce cramp-like symptoms.
• Nerve compression — Compression of nerves in your spine may also produce cramp-like pain in your legs, which usually worsens the longer you walk.
• Mineral depletion — An unhealthy diet can cause mineral deficiencies that may eventually lead to muscle cramps.
In your lower torso, cramps typically affect your calf muscles. Should they appear after strenuous physical activity, performing this exercise may help relieve pain right away:6
- Stand 60 to 90 centimeters away from a wall while keeping your soles flat on the floor.
- Bend forward and lean on the wall. You will feel your calf muscles stretch.
- Repeat several times a day until your calves’ strength improves.
Another strategy is applying a heat pack on the affected muscles. If you don’t have one at home, taking a warm bath may work as well. If both methods do not work, applying ice directly on the cramped muscle may be effective instead.7
Period cramps are common among menstruating women, but they are treatable in various ways. One popular method is applying heat to the abdomen, which may help relieve pain. Any device or approach will do, such as using a hot water bottle, a towel dipped in warm water or taking a hot bath — what is essential in getting rid of period cramps is applying heat on your stomach.8
It’s also important to avoid foods that cause bloating as they may exacerbate your symptoms. Caffeine, salty foods, alcoholic beverages and fatty dishes fall under this category.9 In addition, you may add “preemptive exercising” into your routine. This simply means exercising your core regularly to make it stronger, which may help manage cramping.10
Furthermore, applying essential oils to your stomach may be an effective strategy. They’re filled with unique compounds that may help reduce pain, inflammation and discomfort, as well as helping you relax. Potentially effective options include:11
Stomach cramps occur when the abdominal muscles contract. The main cause is usually muscle strain due to core-focused exercises or other energetic physical activities. In other cases, dehydration, buildup of gas, or the onset of digestive issues such as constipation contribute to stomach cramps.12
Similar to period cramps, stomach cramps may be treated by applying heat on the affected area. You may also supplement your treatment with a massage to provide additional relaxation.13 Alternative treatments include using the following essential oils:14
Neck cramps, also known as a stiff neck, generally occur when the neck muscles weaken over time due to overuse or poor posture. Activities such as looking down at your computer monitor throughout the day, as well as driving or using your smartphone for prolonged periods of time, can weaken neck muscles.15 If you don’t know how to get rid of neck cramps and you’ve experienced it before, this simple procedure may help:16
1. Find the sore spot and place one hand over it.
2. Firmly push into the affected area with your fingers, but not hard enough to cause a sharp pain.
3. Turn your head slightly in the direction opposite of the cramp and bend it diagonally.
4. Repeat steps 1 to 3 around 20 times.
Once your neck feels better, try this simple exercise from the Cleveland Clinic, which is intended to reduce the risk of neck cramps in the future:17
1. Roll your shoulders backwards and down 10 times.
2. Squeeze your shoulder blades together 10 times.
3. Place your hands at the back of your head and push into them, then hold for 30 seconds.
4. Tilt your head shoulder to shoulder 10 times on each side.
Lastly, make sure to practice proper posture regardless of what you’re doing, such as positioning computer monitor at eye level and moving your neck frequently when driving to ensure your muscles remain nimble.18
Hand cramps are generally caused by dehydration, injuries or overuse. In some cases, however, they may be a symptom of rheumatoid arthritis. According to Dr. Kelly Weselman from the Wellstar Medical Group, inflammation in the joints caused by arthritis generally affects muscle function. To make things more confusing, the pain caused by the inflammation may feel like a cramp, too.19
Fortunately, providing relief to your cramped hands is an easy endeavor by performing this simple stretching exercise: Using your opposite hand, lightly push back all four fingers and thumb on the cramped hand. You may also supplement this method with a heat wrap or running your hand under warm water.20
While home remedies may effectively treat cramps whenever they appear, do not neglect your diet. Eating unhealthy food causes vitamin deficiencies that ultimately affect how your body performs.
It’s estimated that 80 percent of Americans are deficient in magnesium, a mineral that performs a vital role in healthy muscle function. Low levels of it can lead to cramps, as well as other musculoskeletal conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic back pain. Potassium, another mineral, has been linked to cramps as well.
To reduce your risk of cramps, it’s important that you eat healthy foods so your body performs at its peak. Rich sources of magnesium include dark leafy greens, such as kale and spinach. You may also consume unpasteurized raw nuts such as almonds and hazelnuts, and fruits such as apples. On the other hand, good sources of potassium include avocado, papaya and wild-caught Alaskan salmon.21