It would quite the difficult feat to try to find anyone who has not faced a muscle cramp before. Most people have had the unfortunate experience of feeling a muscle spasm and tighten, possibly providing a rude awakening in the middle of the night or interrupting a run in a marathon.
While these feelings of occasional discomfort are somewhat common, there are instances when individuals experience severe or persistent muscle cramps that require the attention of a doctor and/or medical intervention of some kind. According to NPS MedicineWise, nearly 20% of people experience muscle cramps that have cause symptoms that are severe or frequent enough to require the attention of a physician.
Considering how common and disruptive this problem is, it is important to understand how they happen, what causes them to occur, and what can be done to prevent this discomfort.
What Are Muscle Cramps?
Muscle cramps can refer to many different issues and causes of pain. The word cramp is commonly used to define the pain felt in the muscles, often in the legs, when muscles spasm, twitch, or otherwise have difficulty contracting and relaxing normally.
In North America, when a cramp occurs, especially in the leg muscles, during which the muscle constricts, but refuses to relax for an extended period of time, this is often referred to as a “charley horse”. The origin of this name is a matter of contention, but many sources suggest that professional baseball players in the late 1880s were the first to start using the term to refer to when the muscles in the legs contract and harden.
What Are the Causes of Muscle Cramps?
There are many different reasons that one might experience a muscle cramp. They tend to be more common in those who place their bodies under a lot of strain or stay in the same position for a long amount of time.
There can also be underlying factors in the body that contribute to the occurrence of cramps. These include:
- Compression of the Nerves – If the nerves within the spine become compressed, this can cause a cramp-like sensation to occur throughout the legs. This pain typically becomes gradually worse, and it is important to consult with a physician as early as possible to address this serious underlying cause of the pain.
- Lack of Blood Flow to the Muscles – Athletes and other active individuals can sometimes experience muscle cramps due to inadequate blood supply, especially if they have overexerted themselves and/or become dehydrated. These cramps typically go away with a little rest and recovery time.
- Pregnancy – Muscle cramps, particularly leg cramps, are especially common among pregnant women.
- Deficiency of Minerals – As explained by the experts at the Mayo Clinic, a deficiency of potassium, calcium, or magnesium in the diet can increase the risk of leg cramps. The use of diuretics, which include coffees, sodas, and some medications prescribed for high blood pressure, can cause a depletion of these minerals as well.
Using Magnesium as a Preventative Measure for Cramps
As a deficiency of magnesium can cause an individual to be predisposed to muscle cramps, it naturally follows that a magnesium supplement might be used to prevent muscle cramps from occurring in the future.
While it is rare for an individual to suffer from a magnesium deficiency, this is somewhat rare. Men require approximately 400 milligrams of this mineral a day, with women requiring at least 310 milligrams. Pregnant and breastfeeding women require approximately 350 mgs.
There is very little risk of having too much magnesium in your system, as your body naturally expels the excess. If the muscle cramps are being caused by a deficiency of magnesium, there is little danger in trying a magnesium supplement.
Pain Relief Through Magnesium
As magnesium deficiencies are rare, a large portion of muscle cramps is not caused by this problem. This leads to the question of whether or not this mineral can be used to address cramps and provide pain relief when there are other underlying causes.
Many researchers and medical professionals are optimistic on this front. For example, Jacob Teitelbaum, MD explains in Dr. Oz Magazine, “clinical experience…has shown that magnesium can be an effective treatment for pain.” In this scenario, Dr. Teitelbaum is referring to magnesium’s ability to provide pain relief in muscles, as this mineral is responsible for making muscles relax.
If the muscles are having difficulty contracting and relaxing, providing an increase of magnesium can act as a natural way to encourage these muscle groups to loosen, possibly providing fairly swift relief to someone experiencing severe or frequent cramps.
Linking Magnesium and NMDA
As referenced by Dr. Teitelbaum, a recent study in The Journal of Physiology reports that, in addition to providing pain relief in muscles, magnesium may also be able to effectively provide nerve pain relief as well.
The study explained that pain is largely experienced when a chemical in the brain known as NMDA is stimulated. The researchers found that magnesium was able to calm this area of the brain. This was very positive news, as the medications currently used to perform this function cause significant side effects.
Continued Research of Treatment Using Magnesium Is Necessary
The study of the connection between magnesium and pain relief is fairly new. Little research has been conducted in this area, with the most conclusive evidence being focused on treating leg cramps in pregnant women.
Muscle and nerve pain treatments using magnesium still need to go through FDA testing and approval processes. The good news is that anyone who feels that their muscle cramps may be addressed using this mineral could potentially find relief simply by using over the counter magnesium supplements, as these are readily available and accessible.
Before using any supplements, however, it is wise to first consult with your physician. Doing so can help you minimize your risk and uncover any hidden, underlying medical conditions that could be causing your muscle cramps.