What Causes Cramp?

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“You get cramp because of dehydration.”

How many times have you heard this explanation, shortly followed by recommendations to drink water with salt in it or one of those rehydration sports drinks?

I used to hear this all the time playing football as I grew up. We’d run to the side line and squirt water or Lucozade into our mouths hoping to take in more liquid that we were sweating out.

I’m not sure if it worked but I didn’t suffer from any cramp, just the weekly humiliation of defeat (we weren’t very good).

However, whenever I watched football on the TV I noticed something different.

A player would go down on the pitch and be writhing around on the ground suffering from cramp, but instead of bringing him a drink, a teammate would instead come over and start helping him stretch.

This got me thinking about what actually causes cramp and reflecting on my own experiences.

I can only remember having had cramp once, I’d just finished having a bath and was trying to get out when it struck. I can vividly remember the pure pain of both hamstrings cramping as I tried to get up. It’s safe to say I wasn’t going anywhere and I just had to wait it out in my lukewarm bath water.

However, as horrible as that experience was I certainly consider myself one of the lucky ones having only suffered from cramp once in my life.

The thing is I know I wasn’t dehydrated at the time, nor was I fatigue, so what caused this sudden onset of cramp?

I did some research and found that cramp is a relative mystery with the usual explanations lacking sufficient evidence. What we do know is that there are a host of medical conditions that can lead to cramping and in these circumstances the reasons for their occurrence are obvious and explained.

However, outside of this, there are millions of people like me and you who suffer from cramp and have no underlying medical reason to explain it.

The usual, ‘you have cramp because you are dehydrated’ reason has been debunked when a study using athletes found that those who suffered from cramps were no more or less hydrated than those who didn’t.

This rules out dehydration, what else?

There is a school of thought that excessive sweating can result in the depletion of sodium and potassium in the fluid that bathes the connection between muscle and nerve, leading the nerve to become hypersensitive and resulting in cramp.

However, whilst this seems like a promising avenue, there is no concrete science to back up this theory and the Doctor who proposed this theory has his research sponsored by Gatorade (I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that) but this theory is out too.

What’s left?

Another theory put forward is that cramp is the result of an imbalance between nerve signals that excite and inhibit a muscle’s contractions and that fatigue can lead to an imbalance of these signals which leads to cramping.

However, again there is no rigorous research to substantiate this claim and again we are left wondering what the real cause of cramp is.

I guess the only thing we know for certain is that no one really knows what causes cramp.