Cramp: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

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Cramp is a painful and involuntary contraction of a muscle or group of muscles. Cramp in the limbs occurs most commonly in the legs, affecting the muscles in the calf or the thighs. It comes on suddenly and without warning, sometimes when the person is deeply asleep.

The muscle fibers contract into a hard knot during the spasm which may last from a few seconds to a few minutes.

Causes of Cramp.

Cramp can be caused by poor blood circulation which results in an inadequate supply of blood reaching the muscles in the limbs. Exposure to cold can also bring on an attack of cramp, and when combined with exhaustion is sometimes a cause of bather’s cramp.

Athletes with slight injuries to the muscles in their limbs may also suffer from cramp in an affected muscle. Heavy sweating which leads to a severe loss of salt from the body can also induce cramp, and eating just before exercise can also lead to this.

Symptoms of Cramp.

The cramped limb seizes up with a sharp local pain, and ordinary efforts to move the muscle and relax it are useless. People who suffer from persistent cramp should check with their doctor that it is not a symptom of a circulatory problem.

Cramp in itself is unpleasant but not dangerous. However, someone suffering from spasm while swimming and out of his depth is in real danger. Other physically active people should stop and deal with the cramp when it strikes, rather than attempting to continue with the physical exercise while suffering.


It caused by circulatory problems such as artery disease can be treated by vasodilator drugs which your doctor will prescribe. These open out the narrowed arteries which improves the flow of blood to the muscles.

Young people and others involved in sporting activities should avoid eating shortly before physical exertion. If cramp has been brought on by loss of salt from the body, as after prolonged sweating, then salt tablets taken with water will help to restore the balance in the body. An attack of cramp can be somewhat eased by massaging and manipulating the affected muscle.

Spasm that is caused by artery disease usually occurs later in life, and although drugs may alleviate the symptoms, they do not cure the hardened arteries. Most active people find that their attacks of cramp are temporary.

Women who suffer from cramp during pregnancy usually find that the attacks disappear once their babies are born.

Some people, especially the elderly, get severe attacks of cramp at night, usually for no particular reason. These ‘night cramps’ can often be prevented by taking a type of quinine tablet before bed.

Frequently Asked Questions.

1. My son is a journalist and says he suffers from writer’s cramp. What is it and can it be cured?

Writer’s cramp is also known as professional or occupational spasm, as it can affect anybody who uses their hands for delicate work, such as musicians, artists and seamstresses. Commonly, the muscles of the fingers, and even the forearm, seize up so that work with the affected hand is impossible.

Usually, the hand can be used, normally for anything else, which leads to the belief that it is a psychological condition. It is not linked to an organic or bodily disease.

The best way to treat this form of cramp is to discover the underlying psychological cause, and to treat that. Sometimes a rest from work is the best cure.

2. I only suffer from cramp on my annual holiday in Spain, although I exercise all year round. Why is this?

If you exercise vigorously in a hot climate, perhaps by playing volley ball on the beach, you will lose salt from your body along with the sweat. It is this lack of salt which causes heat cramps. Try taking salt tablets.

3. My husband says I should wait at least half an hour after a meal before I go swimming. As I may get cramp and drown. I think he worries unnecessarily. Who’s right?

He is right. During digestion, the blood is concentrated round the intestines and away from the muscles in your arms and legs. So spasm may result.

4. I am pregnant and frequently suffer from cramp in my legs night. Why is this?

Your muscles are under additional strain during the day to the unaccustomed weight of developing baby. So go into spasm at night as a result. Ask your husband to massage you, as you will not be able to reach. When you have had  your baby, the attacks will probably disappear.


Almost everyone has experienced muscle cramp—the unexpected and agonizing pain in the backs of the legs. But it is not usually a sign that anything is seriously wrong and can be relieved by self-massage.

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