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Whoa there, charley horse! Muscle cramps are a pickle, but scientists won’t relax, either

Illustration by Cathryn Cunningham/Journal

Timely control of muscle contractions allows us to effectively interact with the world around us.

Thanks to controlled muscle contractions, we can swing a golf club or turn on car blinkers, walk to the kitchen or sprint 100 meters, type on a keyboard or move a dumbbell.

While it may be obvious that the ability to control muscle contraction is important, it may be easier to forget about how important it is that our muscles relax (stop contracting) when we want them to … that is until one experiences a muscle cramp.

Muscle cramps are muscle contractions (or spasms) that persist against the person’s will. They are temporary – usually lasting a matter of seconds to minutes – but can be unpleasant, painful and debilitating during that time.

Many things can cause muscle camps, but a common cause is physical exercise. So-called “exercise-induced muscle cramps” tend to occur in the muscles that are actively involved in the exercise, and most often happen toward the end of a long exercise session when the person is becoming exhausted.

Exercise-induced muscle cramps also seem to occur more often when the exercise takes place in high ambient temperatures and in people who are less physically fit or deconditioned.

While we know the circumstances that surround exercise-induced muscle cramps, we do not know for sure what causes them.

In a 2019 article published in the journal Sports Medicine by researchers at St. Andrews University in Scotland, the authors explained that some studies indicate that dehydration and changes in electrolyte levels in the body fluids are the cause. But other research shows that an imbalance in nerve reflexes that help control muscle relaxation and contraction (think the knee-jerk reflex test your doctor does) are really to blame.

Anyone who has experienced exercise-induced muscle cramps might want to know what can be done to stop them when they occur or, better yet, prevent them from happening.

Exercise-induced muscle cramps are difficult for scientists to study because they are unpredictable and usually resolve before an experimental treatment can be given. Because they are difficult to study in a controlled, scientific way, strong evidence for preventative or treatment options is scarce.

An intuitive, and reportedly effective, remedy is to gently stretch cramping muscle.

A 2010 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise from researchers at Brigham Young University showed that ingesting a small amount of pickle juice after the onset of a cramp decreased the duration of the cramp by about 50%.

In reference to the rapidity of this remedy, the authors suspected that pickle juice worked by causing nerve reflex signals from the mouth to tell the cramping muscle to relax.

Exercise-induced muscle cramps are a nuisance for many people and scientists are still working to develop a better understanding of what causes them. This information could help identify new and more effective treatment and preventative strategies.

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