October Wellness Tip

As we age, muscle cramps can become either more frequent or more painfully intense. In older age, many things in our bodies including our muscles and nerves wear out and become less functional.

Cramps are caused by a muscle spasm which contracts too hard. It usually occurs in a calf muscle, below and behind a knee, and in the small muscles of the feet. When the muscle spasms and squeezes all the little nerve endings inside the muscle this creates pain. If you have ever experienced a cramp, you know the pain will not go away until you make the move to do something about it.

Unfortunately no scientific research has been conducted that proves any tried and true method for either preventing muscle cramps or getting them to go away quickly.

An article on NPR.org tells the story of a 71 year old man named Holladay who was waking up between 2 and 6am every morning with severe cramping in his toes. One morning it was so bad, he stood up and broke his toenail off as well as the big toe itself. This was his wake up call to do some research and find out what he could do to make these painful cramps stop and thus, get a restful night of sleep.

He set up an appointment to meet his family doctor who first ruled out any chance that he could have some type of degenerative disease which could cause cramps such as ALS. Once that was determined, the doctor advised trying acupuncture and a prescription for quinine. Quinine is no longer on the market for treatment due to its bad side effects. Holladay had no good results with acupuncture, so he decided to meet with a neurologist.

At the neurology clinic at Stanford University, doctors and colleagues had just finished an evidence-based review of treatments for muscle cramps. Unfortunately, they turned up very little. There were hundreds of studies but not one showed that any particular treatment would work for all or even most patients. Some treatments did hold some promise such as including a type of calcium channel blocker used to treat blood pressure as well as a Vitamin B complex. However, even with those, results showed that they did not work for a lot of the participants.

According to University of California at San Francisco’s neurologist, Dr. Robert Miller, “older people are at greater risk for cramps simply because of their age. Nerves control muscles, and nerves just wear out.”

Here are some things you can do to ease the pain once you have a cramp:

  • Cease-at least for the time being-the activity that triggered your cramp
  • Massage the cramped area slowly and gently
  • Stretch the cramped muscle slowly and gently; hold the stretch until the cramp eases
  • Apply ice when the muscles feel tender and sore
  • Apply heat when the muscles feel tense and tight