We've all experienced muscle cramps at one point or another. While theories abound, there is limited consensus on why exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMC) develop and how to get rid of them.
Etiology: The most widely held beliefs for why people develop cramps are (a) dehydration and electrolyte imbalance and (b) altered neuromuscular control. Science favors the latter explanation. In a non-cramped state, there is a balance between the activity of muscle spindles and the activity of golgi tendon organs. Muscular overload or fatigue, as well as other factors, causes an imbalance in the activity of these local receptors. The result is an overall increase in alpha motor neuron activity, which ultimately produces a cramp.
Risk factors: Some hypotheses as to why people might experience EAMC include age, body size, exercise intensity and duration, previous or current injury, gender, family history, genetics, and a history of EAMC. The strongest risk factors are a history of EAMC, male gender, and prolonged and relatively vigorous endurance exercise. Cramps may affect men more than women because men possess more fast-twitch muscle fibers, which fatigue more quickly than slow-twitch fibers. Also, women oxidize more fat and less carbohydrate than men, which may make them less prone to overload compared with men. These are merely theories, however.
Treatment: Common treatment practices include electrical cramp induction, kinesiotaping and compression garments, massage therapy, electrolyte supplementation and hydration, corrective exercise, stretching, quinine, pickle juice, and hyperventilation strategies. Stretching seemed to offer the greatest relief.
Prevention of EAMCD should attempt to offset muscular overload and fatigue. Strategies might include foam rolling or massage, scheduling adequate rest, and placing special emphasis on muscular balance in resistance training. Stretching still appears to be the best treatment for an acute bout of EAMC.