by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health
After a long day of gardening last week, I awakened with an intense muscle cramp in my leg that was so painful I might have been worried — except that I knew what I could drink to make it go away (you wonât believe that I could it get down at 3 am — Iâll tell you what it was in a minute). But sometimes muscle cramps arenât so easy to get rid of and, in fact, sometimes they are a sign of a serious illness. And, of course, not everyone knows about my magic cure… so I thought this was a topic you might like to know some more about.
Who Gets Muscle Cramps?
Muscle cramps are a common problem — medically speaking, a muscle cramp is a sudden, involuntary contraction of one or more muscles that can be very painful, sometimes leaving tenderness for up to 24 hours after the cramp subsides. Aging and overuse of the muscles are two common causes, but other triggers can include dehydration… low blood sugar… calcium, sodium and/or magnesium deficiency… underactive thyroid… kidney or liver dysfunction… peripheral vascular disease (which restricts blood flow to the legs)… nerve compression… Lou Gehrigâs disease (ALS)… brain tumors/cancer… multiple sclerosis… well, you get the picture.
What you need to know
To get some useful advice, I contacted Barry Wiese, DC, a board-certified chiropractic neurologist in private practice in Rochester, New York, whose specialty work with geriatric patients and background as a marathon runner have given him especially unique expertise on this topic. Cautioning that there is no surefire, works-every-time solution, he told me how to differentiate a run-of-the-mill (if excruciating) cramp from one that you must tell your doctor about.
Hereâs a list of questions to ask yourself:
Are my cramps random? According to Dr. Wiese, a cramp that comes on suddenly and inexplicably is usually not a problem. Noting that the majority of random cramps are no big deal, he suggested that itâs fine to try the “old standby” cures, including eating a banana (for potassium)… drinking more water to counter dehydration… light stretching of the affected area… self-massage… and heat packs to relieve pain and tenderness.
Are my cramps becoming more frequent and/or following a pattern? Cramps that begin to establish themselves in a predictable pattern — such as at a particular time of day or when you walk — may be a worrisome sign that you should discuss with your doctor.
Did I do something that might explain this cramp? If you realize that you are getting cramps often, even predictably in certain situations, start a log of when they strike including time of day… what youâve eaten… how long they last… how painful they are (consider a score between one and 10)… and what you were doing before and during the episode. Share this information with your doctor.
Should I see my doctor? With persistent or worsening muscle cramps, you need to see your doctor to discuss potential causes and treatments. Though muscle cramping represents abnormal function, itâs only rarely serious, Dr. Weise said. However, he pointed out that “many disease processes include cramping in their list of symptoms… and for many of those, the earlier you get treated, the better the outcome — so it pays to follow a conservative, cautious route until proven otherwise.”
Youâll be asked about your medical history, and your doctor may suggest some tests, including blood work, to find the root cause. Treatment options could range from vitamin B supplementation… to prescription medications, such as diltiazem (a calcium-channel blocker) and baclofen (a potent muscle relaxant sometimes used to treat muscle spasms in patients with MS and ALS)… and possibly even quinine, the malaria treatment, though itâs used only in extreme cases because of the potential adverse side effects.
Of course, you know already that my muscle cramp fell into the “random and not worrisome” category, painful as it was. So now I will tell you about my secret cure… pickle juice! (You could also just eat a pickle.) No, Iâm not kidding, and you may be surprised to learn that Dr. Wiese didnât even find it strange when I told him. I learned about pickle juice from my college field hockey coach, who suggested drinking it — and/or eating mustard — when players complained of muscle cramps. Both contain acetic acid, salts and other ingredients that help neutralize the compounds or electrolyte deficiencies that may cause cramps. Other helpful remedies you may be able to pull out of your kitchen cabinets include apple cider vinegar (mix two teaspoons with one teaspoon of honey into a glass of warm water), which works much like the pickle juice… and chamomile tea, which contains glycine, an amino acid that helps relieve muscle spasms.
Barry Wiese, DC, a board-certified chiropractic neurologist in private practice in Rochester, New York.