If you've ever had a severe muscle cramp, you know the meaning of agonizing, disabling pain. The timing of a cramp often indicates its cause.
Cramps that occur when you first start to exercise may mean that your body is low in calcium, magnesium, sodium or potassium, the minerals that work together for proper muscle functioning. Deficiencies affect blood flow to muscles, allowing them to contract but not relax. Vitamins C and E also help supply needed oxygen to the blood.
Muscle cramps and burning sensations during intense physical activity occur when muscles shut down because of lactic acid build-up. Supplementing with calcium lactate speeds up lactic acid clearance from the blood.
Someone on a sodium-restricted diet may also suffer from cramps when perspiring heavily and losing salt in our hot, humid environment.
Cramps after prolonged exercise can be due to dehydration. Dried-out muscles are tight muscles.
During strenuous activity, the increased loss of fluid decreases blood volume and reduces oxygen supply to the muscles. In addition, some sports drinks contain too much sugar and salt, explains Robert Hass in "Eat to Win." Consequently, fluid is drawn into the stomach and away from muscles. The same applies to high-protein diets, which require more water for digestion.
Nighttime cramps occur when leg muscles automatically contract as you turn, stretch or point your toes during sleep, especially when you sleep on your back. Usually the same minerals help, along with postural changes and proper stretching before bedtime.
Paul Donahue described the "soap cure" in his nationally syndicated column. "Putting a bar of soap, any brand, between the sheets stops the cramps. I don't know why or how it works, but many people assure me it does."
Restless legs, another nightmare, have no known medical cause, but several studies have implicated iron or folic acid deficiencies. Stopping caffeine, nicotine and alcohol after the evening meal may help.
Poor leg circulation may be the cause of cramps. Look for symptoms of pale skin, toenails that don't grow, numb or cold toes and loss of leg hair.
Unexplained cramps require medical advice to check for underlying metabolic or neurological disorders.
Those dreaded menstrual cramps may be related to dairy foods, two experts agree.
James. E. Balch, author of "Prescription for Nutritional Healing," says heavy dairy consumption interferes with magnesium absorption. Christiane Northrup suggests that the problem with milk lies with the residues of hormones and antibiotics. She recommends switching to organic milk.
In her book, "Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom," Dr. Northrup points out that coffee or colas, even once a week, can drastically affect some women's PMS symptoms.
Popular cramp cures include:
. Drinking tonic water with quinine (discontinue if you experience ringing in the ears, nausea, rash or changes in color vision.
. Two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, plus one tablespoon of honey in a cup of warm water (supplies potassium).
. Arnica Montana, a homeopathic remedy, applied topically or taken internally for muscle aches.
. Lip pinch (acupinch); firmly pinch or press with your index finger or knuckle the area between your nose and upper lip for one minute to stimulate this anti-spasmodic point in your gum.
Step-by-step instructions for self-help are found in "Acupressure's Potent Points," written by Michael Reed Gach, a practical guide for relieving everyday aches and pains.
The best solution for cramps is prevention.
The information in this article is for educational purposes. Consult your physician if you have a medical condition.
Margot Bennett is a licensed nutritionist at Mother Nature's Pantry, located in the Garden Square Shoppes, 4513 PGA Blvd. in Palm Beach Gardens. Call her at (561) 626-4461.