What and Why?
Cramp is pain in muscles that cannot release their grip and therefore strangle their own blood supply. That stops medicine getting into the muscle as well as air and food, which is why pain-killing drugs seldom help it much. You can still solve the problem easily enough but you need to understand a bit of how your muscles work.
Like most functions you use frequently every day, muscle power is something you reckon you understand until you come to think about it. Nothing in the engineering world is quite like it. Elastic provides power but no control; electric motors and hydraulics do not relax; however does nature do it? To grasp the answer you need to imagine two paint-brushes with long bristles facing each other and handles outwards. The handles are like the sinews that attach the muscle to bones at each end and the bristles are like the muscle meat. Then imagine each bristle in one brush being paired with a similar bristle on the other and able to slide down beside it at the flick of a switch, as if by magnetism. When all these pairs of bristles are drawn in alongside each other as far as they can get, the effect is to overlap the brushes up to the hilt and bring the handles much closer together. Even if they are not free to move, the combined pull of all these pairs of bristles trying to slide together produces a strong tension between the handles.
Something like that but more complicated happens in your muscles. Each muscle fibre is like one linked pair of bristles complete with the magnetic circuit and switch that attracts them together. These muscle fibres are not usually all operating together to produce the maximum tension possible, however. Each fibre flicks on briefly and then rests while another fibre takes over. The overall tension in the muscle depends on how many fibres are switched on at once: it may be very few, or practically all of them. However you cannot keep all the fibres switched on all the time — they have to rest and draw energy from your blood for the next effort. The pain you get in muscles on maximum effort is because they cannot rest for long enough to let the blood in.
Cramp is one stage further. Because the muscles lack nourishment or because your blood is inadequately supplied in the first place, the muscle fibres are unable to switch themselves off. The tense shortening and painful spasm that results from this is quite involuntary and most uncomfortable. It can happen because you are cold or physically exhausted, or it can come on in a muscle you are using awkwardly, for instance when straining to reach a high shelf or sitting in an uncomfortable position. In all these instances you are asking the muscle to give its best, and going over the top.
Cramp can however wake you up in bed at night when you should have been quite relaxed. In this case something is wrong with the mechanism of the muscle, not in the way you are using it. There will always be limits on what your muscles can do however well you train them: but you should not have to put up with mechanical failure and need to set that right. Besides the discomfort of the cramp itself, it indicates an imbalance in your bloodstream that will affect every other part of you as well, though perhaps not so obviously.
Usually the problem lies in mineral supplies. The release mechanism needs at least magnesium and potassium to work at all, but a whole series of nutrient minerals are involved in some degree or other. Inadequate thyroid function or unnatural coldness slows down muscle action considerably and affects a lot more people than most medical authorities recognize. Vitamin E seems to be involved as well, whether through its connection with the mineral selenium or through some property of its own.
What can I do?
Advice to maintain and maximise health
1. Keep your bloodstream clean and efficient by eating well in the first place; that ensures for most people a reasonable balance of minerals and everything else you need to keep up your energy supply for general purposes. If you only suffer from cramp during vigorous exercise or sport, avoid using much meat during the final stages of your training: meat helps you build flesh but hinders your use of it. You perform best on vegetables, fruit and cereals supported if necessary by energy-promoting supplements such as Glycophos (NDS Healthcare) which is glycosides bound with phosphorus.
2. Supplementation: Cramp, coming on at night for no reason, usually clears up quickly if you supplement your mineral intake with either Kelp or food-state Multimineral.
- Multimineral works better but is considerably more expensive.
- Kelp also boosts your supplies of iodine which may help a flagging thyroid gland rally back to normal.
- If you are always unaccountably cold this may be insufficient: read Always Cold for further advice.
- Another approach is to take 30mg bionatured or food-state Vitamin E every day, which cures cramp in most people.
3. The first aid for an attack of cramp is to stretch the affected muscle smoothly and firmly — not too forcibly or suddenly. A muscle that cramps often will usually improve if you make a daily habit of stretching it to increase its general suppleness. Make sure you sort out the general nutritional problem as well.
4. Keep warm: If you are out and about in the cold, make sure either that you are active enough to keep warm or else dress warmly enough in the first place. Swimming in cold water immediately after a meal asks your blood to stretch both ways — digesting your meal and nourishing cold limbs at the same time. Cramp in these circumstances can cause drowning, and is never worth the risk.
5. Cramp in womb muscles during menstruation responds to warmth and raspberry leaf tea or tablets; start consuming this regularly a few days before you anticipate the trouble. Stomach cramps are dealt with at length separately.
6. Doctors are able to prescribe tablets to relieve night cramps, but you are best advised to try these self-help measures first: they do positive good, whereas tablets only blot out the symptom.