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All About Muscle Cramps

Most of us have experienced the pain of a muscle cramp or "charley horse."  Muscle cramps--involuntary muscle contractions--are common. But even though they can be quite painful, they don't usually cause damage.

Any muscle can cramp, but the muscles of the calf, back of the thigh, and front of the thigh are most commonly affected. Cramps are also common in the feet, hands, arms and abdomen, and along the rib cage.

A muscle cramp can last from a few seconds to 15 minutes or even longer. The cramp may recur several times before it goes away.


Muscle cramps usually occur after muscle fatigue, dehydration, or heavy exercise. Simply remaining in the same position for a prolonged time may contribute to a cramp. Avoid those problems and you can avoid muscle cramps--usually. Cramps affect almost everyone at some time in life.

These are other common causes of muscle cramps:

  • Pregnancy

  • Hypothyroidism

  • Abnormalities of the metabolism

  • Alcoholism

  • Kidney failure

  • Certain medicines


Warming up and stretching before a workout may help avoid cramping. Make gradual changes in the type and intensity of exercise to minimize muscle fatigue and potential cramps. Being in good physical condition also helps keep the cramps away.

Older adults are more likely to get muscle cramps because of normal muscle loss that comes with aging.

You may be able to prevent some cramps by drinking plenty of fluids and getting enough food and beverages that contain electrolytes. Electrolytes are the minerals potassium, sodium, and chloride that permit the body's cells to exchange fluids properly. A normal, balanced diet should provide plenty of electrolytes. See your healthcare provider if your cramps are severe, persistent, frequent or unresponsive to simple treatments, as it may mean a more serious problem.

When cramps strike

Try gently stretching the muscle and hold the stretch. Massaging may help. Apply pressure and gently stretch the muscle. If the cramp strikes at night, run a hand towel under hot water and wrap it tightly around the cramped muscle. Within about a minute the muscle will relax and the knot will disappear.

Online Medical Reviewer: Moloney Johns, Amanda, PA-C, MPAS, BBA
Online Medical Reviewer: Ogiela, Dennis, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 7/1/2016
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