Why Do You Get Muscle Cramps – Preventions & Treatments (Updated 2023)

Dr. James - Orthopaedic Surgeon in Singapore

Medically reviewed by Dr. James Tan

Muscle cramps are a familiar condition that affects all of us from time to time. Whether it is one of those sharply painful leg spasms that wake you up in the middle of the night or an ache that stops you in your tracks at the gym, we have all had them. They range from annoying to downright frightening. But, why do you get them? Are they a sign of something more serious? And, most importantly, what can you do to prevent them? 

Let’s take a closer look at how they work and what you can do to avoid them. 

What Causes Muscle Cramps? 

Every person is different and each one of us has different causes at different times. While it is not a very exact science, there are a few key issues that often cause them. Here are a few possible causes to consider: 

  • Overuse and fatigue: They are common during workouts and can persist even after the exercise session is over as your body gets used to a new routine. Stretching and properly warming up before your workout is key to prevention, especially before going for bouldering or group activities like spinning to prevent rhabdomyolysis. It’s also important to eat carbohydrate-rich foods before workouts and replace the salt your body loses during sweat sessions. 
  • Dehydration: During workouts, your cramps may also be caused by dehydration. If the weather is particularly hot, you might find that even light activity leaves you parched. This is just another one of the many reasons that it is crucial to have plenty of water on hand any time you are breaking a sweat to prevent heat exhaustion
  • Muscle strain: Staying in the same position for a long period can cause cramps. While standing still feels entirely different from an intense workout it can still cause strain on your body. Be careful not to over-exert yourself to prevent a torn meniscus or ACL tears.

These are the three most common causes but not the only ones. Occasionally there is an underlying medical condition causing them. In other cases, the exact cause is not known, and you might require a MRI scan or consider PRP injections to speed up recovery. 

If you are looking for a torn meniscus treatment specialist, talk to Dr. James at Ray of Health today!

Are Some People More Prone to Muscle Cramps?

Here in our Singapore clinic, one of our most frequently asked questions is: why am I prone to them? Is there some underlying issue? While they shouldn’t be a cause of panic, there are a few common conditions that can cause them. 

Why Do You Get Them? 

They can seem entirely random. Two people can do the same warmup before a workout and one gets cramps while the other doesn’t. Two people can have a similar medical history and one regularly gets leg cramps at night while the other doesn’t. Why is that? There are a few factors that may boost your risk of getting them:

  • Age: As you get older, you lose muscle mass. The muscle mass that remains can get overstressed more easily and that can lead to muscle fatigue. Ageing also causes problems like knee arthritis, which can be managed with proper treatment plans.
  • Dehydration: Athletes, those living in warm climates, and people who simply don’t drink enough water.
  • Pregnancy: During pregnancy, your entire body is under stress and muscle cramps become common.
  • Medical conditions: If you have diabetes or a disorder affecting your nerves, liver or thyroid, you are at great risk. 

Why Do We Get Muscle Cramps at Night?

Many of the muscle cramp issues that we hear about happen at night. People often come in with complaints that sudden cramps, especially on the leg, wake them up or prevent them from getting to sleep. 

These can be caused by the same muscle fatigue and dehydration that causes cramps during the daytime. They are even more common after a day of a lot of exercise and movement. The reasons why nocturnal cramps are more common, however, aren’t known. 

Experts know that muscles cramping at night become increasingly common with age but we don’t know the reason for it. We do know that when your muscles are tight after strenuous exercise such as F45 trainings or HIIT workouts, they may contract. This causes cramping. This is especially common when you are beginning a new workout like deadlifts or dealing with dehydration or an electrolyte imbalance. 

For doctors, however, all of them are essentially the same. We call the evening ones nocturnal cramps but we are yet to see what causes them to only happen at night for some people.  

When Should I Be Worried?

Deciding when to go to the doctor can be confusing. While a cramp can feel incredibly painful, it is rarely a cause for panic. Generally speaking, you only need emergency care if your cramp lasts more than ten minutes. 

As painful as cramps can be, they should be over quickly. If your cramp is sharply painful and not going away, it can be a sign of an urgent medical issue or injury like a rotator cuff tear.

Read more: How to Differentiate Between Neck and Shoulder Pain

When To See a Doctor?

While they almost always go away on their own, they are worth mentioning to your doctor in some cases. Even if you don’t require an urgent hospital visit, you should book an appointment with a healthcare professional if you are dealing with any of the following conditions: 

  • Unbearable pain 
  • Leg, foot swelling 
  • Redness or changes to your skin 
  • Muscle weakness 
  • Frequent cramps 
  • Cramps that don’t go away 

Read also: Differences Between a Chiropractor and an Orthopaedic Doctor

Read also: Differences Between Chiropractors, Osteopaths, and Physiotherapists

What Diseases Have Muscle Cramps As a Symptom?

Why do you get them? Could they be a sign of a bigger issue? The most common diseases are diabetes and any disorder of your liver, thyroid, or nerves. These are not the only causes, however. 

Your body supply can also cause cramps. When your arteries are narrow in your legs, you can feel a pain in your legs and feet. This will happen when you’re exercising then typically stop quickly as soon as you stop moving.  

You may also be dealing with compressed nerves in your spine. The longer you walk, the worse this pain will get. Sometimes simply walking with a slight flex can improve symptoms. 

In either of these cases, it’s important to see a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. 

What Is the Body Lacking When You Get Cramps?

Cramps can also be caused by the depletion of minerals in your body. This is particularly true when you are deficient in potassium, calcium or magnesium. These deficiencies can be caused by dehydration, or simply a diet lacking in variety. Why do you get them if you’re drinking plenty of water and maintaining a good idea? Certain medications for high blood pressure and other conditions can also cause deficiencies so check with your doctor if you have regular medication. 

How to Prevent Them?

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Want to prevent them? There are a few key steps that you can take: 

  • Avoid dehydration: Always drink plenty of water. If you have trouble getting enough water, look to other low-sugar, non-alcoholic drinks as well as water-rich fruits and vegetables. 
  • Stretch your muscles: Before you work out, always stretch and take the time to warm up. If you can’t exercise regularly, a simple and quick routine of light stretches and walking can make a world of difference. This can be helpful especially if you are working from home, and this can prevent work-from-home aches and pains. Frequently doing shoulder mobility exercises can also help improve shoulder mobility for long-term and short-term relief. After exercising, static stretching can also help.
  • Engage in low-impact exercises
  • Consume food rich in potassium and magnesium
  • Replenish electrolytes with sports drinks

They can be a painful and frustrating experience, especially if they’re recurring. While there are many potential causes, one common factor is overuse or strain. This can be a result of sports or other physical activity, which can put a lot of stress on the body. At Ray of Health, we offer a range of services to help you prevent and treat sports injuries, including sports injury treatment and shoulder pain treatment. We also have resources on specific conditions like tennis elbow and wrist pain treatment, which can contribute to muscle cramps in some cases. By addressing these underlying issues, you can reduce your risk and other discomforts during physical activity.

If you’d like to find us directly, visit one of our clinics below:

Camden Medical

1 Orchard Boulevard, #09-06

Singapore 248649

Mount Alvernia Hospital

820 Thomson Road

Medical Centre D #05-60

Singapore 574623

Check out our other articles:

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Dr. James - Orthopaedic Surgeon in Singapore

About the Author

Dr James Tan is a highly skilled orthopaedic surgeon who has more than 10 years of experience in sports surgery and exercise medicine. He is a member of the elite Asian Shoulder and Elbow Group and a founding member of the Singapore Shoulder and Elbow Surgery Society.

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