Why Do We Get Cramps? How Do We Avoid Them?

(Last Updated On: May 5, 2020)

Why Do We Get Cramps?

You know the feeling. You’re lying in bed and your calf suddenly decides it’s a leg-sized worm that wants out of your body. That, or you’ve been writing too many things by hand (do people still do that?) and your hand contorts itself into a weird clasp for some five minutes. They’re annoying and they can sneak up on you, so why do we get muscle cramps? And perhaps even more importantly, how do we avoid cramps?

Anatomy of a Muscle Cramp

Brief things to know about muscles, they’re a bunch of proteins lined up next to each other that generate motion. You’ve got 3 types of muscles inside of you–skeletal, smooth, and cardiac. 

Skeletal muscles are the only ones you have voluntary control over. As their name suggests, they’re bound to your bones and make your skeleton move and whatnot. Smooth muscles do a lot of important stuff for your organs, and many of the things your body does autonomously. Like making sure stuff goes from your stomach to your intestines, or making sure your bladder is properly functioning. The least common of the three, cardiac muscle, is found only in the heart. 

Muscles can only contract, which means they can only bring their two ends closer together. That’s why they normally come in pairs, so when one contracts it by proxy extends its counterpart. Gives you more degrees of motion and all that.

So how does this play into that leg cramp you got a couple nights ago? Well muscle cramps typically concern skeletal and smooth muscle tissue, where the muscle involuntarily or otherwise abnormally contracts. We’re pretty sure something like that happening in your heart (cardiac muscle), would be bad.

Skeletal muscle cramps normally concern things like your limbs and whatnot. With smooth muscle cramps you’re looking at (typically) menstrual cramps and stomach cramps.

What Causes Cramps?

Cramps typically occur when your muscles find themselves unable to properly relax. Maybe it’s because you threw yourself into your daily workout without doing some quick stretches, or because of lactic acid buildup from using the muscle too much. Being frequently dehydrated (drink water!) or lacking magnesium and potassium will increase the likelihood of suffering from a muscle cramp as well. Calcium and sodium are also important elements that may cause cramps if you have a deficiency in them. 

Poor blood circulation may cause a frequent cramp as well. Sometimes, if you’re unlucky, this can just happen when your arteries constrict as a part of normal operation. That’s why some people say they get leg cramps at night when they’re cold and stuff.

Sometimes your body just decides to bug out, and nerves misfire. Then your muscles go haywire as a result. Sometimes this is a sign of neurological conditions, and other times your body is just having a laugh. These neurological conditions can be severe, including but not limited to Parkinson’s Disease.

Nighttime leg cramps, which are a pretty common phenomenon, are a bit of an enigma. While they can happen as a result of lactic acid buildup or dietary issues, they can also be caused by other health conditions ranging from a cardiovascular condition to pregnancy. 

Smooth Muscle Cramps

Stomach cramps can occur if you’re lactose intolerant, suffering from food poisoning/indigestion, and other bowel conditions. 

As far as menstrual cramps go, they can occur as a part of the menstrual cycle–which is awful if you’re regularly affected by them. Because it just means that’s how it is. Irregular bleeding or heavy flow is often linked to menstrual cramps. But sometimes menstrual cramps can just occur because of anatomical quirks unique to some women. That’s why people can experience period cramps so differently, and also why you probably shouldn’t be applying individual experiences onto other individuals. 

Getting Rid of a Cramp

Typically when you get a muscle cramp, stretching the muscle is a good way to get the pain to pass. For leg cramps specifically, a common hack is keeping your knee straight and bringing your toes towards yourself. Otherwise a better diet, stretching, and hydrating could do you some favors as well. 

Think you know your muscles? Take a stab at some anatomy knowledge here.

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About Kyler 559 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and has just finished his undergraduate at the University of Washington. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019 and has accumulated so much random, general knowledge he'd rather not think about it. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.