As winter approaches, some of us may enjoy stacking up our pantries with dry nuts, soups, and coffee and our wardrobes with warm clothes, but many women might be worried about one of the major inconveniences of winters – muscle spasms! Muscle spasms (muscle cramps) are painful contractions and tightening of muscles. They are common, involuntary and unpredictable. Although there are steps that you can take to prevent a muscle spasm and treat it when it happens, those methods are not always dependable. Muscle relaxants, stretching and massage are most likely to help. In this article, we will discuss what causes spasms and how to alleviate this condition.
What are Muscle Cramps?
Cramps occur when a single muscle or a group of muscles contract involuntarily or cannot relax causing severe pain. The cold weather and inactive lifestyle may aggravate the condition by constricting and stiffening the blood vessels in the affected area. Muscle spasms are normal and quite common. You can get muscle spasms anywhere in your body. Some of the most common types include:
• Back spasms
• Arm spasms
• Leg cramps or charley horses
• Neck spasms
• Chest cramps
• Abdominal cramps
• Ribcage spasms
Muscle spasms can happen to anyone at any time. They can occur when you walk, sit, exercise or sleep. Some people are prone to muscle spasms and get them regularly with any type of physical exertion. Winters are particularly hard for such people.
Spasms in the muscles can vary in intensity, from mild to severe. In mild cases, your muscle may feel as though it is bouncing about by itself. You may even occasionally notice twitches in your muscles. In more severe cases, it may feel as though your entire muscle has contracted into a taut ball. This happens a lot with leg cramps. If a cramp is particularly painful, you might even have lingering discomfort in that area for a day or two.
If muscle spasms result from a neurological condition, you may develop additional symptoms like, muscle pain, muscle weakness, paralysis, numbness, coordination issues, difficulty sleeping and vision issues.
It is not exactly clear why some people get muscle spasms more than others. One or more of the following may be to blame in most cases.
Muscles are meant to move. Without regular exercise and movement, muscles tend to stiffen due to inactivity, decrease in mass, and vascularization. Therefore, when muscles are subject to sudden contraction and relaxation, especially during cold weather, they become sore and tired.
In those professions where one has to sit for long durations, muscles remain in the same, often unnatural, position for protracted periods, leading to muscular spasms that include nocturnal cramps.
Dehydration and Electrolyte Imbalance
Electrolytes, especially calcium, potassium, and magnesium, are required for proper functioning of muscles. During cold weather, we drink less water, so dehydration causes electrolyte imbalance and cramps in the legs and other areas of the body.
Calcium is an essential mineral that helps in muscle contraction, movement, and bone mass. Normal calcium levels in an adult’s body range from 8.7 to 10.2 mg/dL. Low calcium intake because of poor nutrition results in hypocalcemia. Keeping a healthy range of calcium levels in the body helps properly functioning muscles without over-exerting the nerves in muscles and also helps avoid twitching and spasms.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Normal vitamin D level in the blood is 50 nmol/L, which is adequate to keep bones and muscles healthy. Recommended daily vitamin D intake for women is almost 15 mcg (600 IU). Inactive forms of Vitamin D, converted into active forms through sunlight, are present in the skin. Less sun exposure and lesser dietary intake of vitamin D may contribute to its lower levels in the blood, which may result in cramps.
Excessive Use of Specific Groups of Muscles
When a particular group of muscles is overused, for example, while running for a long time, twitching and cramping may occur in overworked muscle fibers. That is why it is recommended to start with slow and subtle workouts and gradually build your stamina.
Specific medical issues like diabetes, thyroid malfunction, and liver diseases may contribute to muscle cramps, especially during winter. Also, some medicines, like Albuterol, diuretics, and statins, may increase the frequency and intensity of cramps in patients.
Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps
It is an intense but excruciating muscle cramping that can occur during or after a heavy workout in athletes. It is a temporary condition that may go away with time.
Management and Treatment
Some things that you can do to try and stop muscle cramps fast are, stretching the affected area, massaging the affected area with your hands or a massage roller, standing up and walking around, applying heat or ice, and taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
Muscle relaxants may also be used for short-term treatment of muscle cramping during winter. These medicines temporarily relax the muscle fibers and help loosen the twitching and soreness but they can cause drowsiness, dizziness and nausea. Because of these side effects, this medication may not be a long-term solution. One must consult a physician before taking these medicines and treat the root cause.
Specific home remedies are very effective for treating muscle cramping during winter. They are safe and without side effects, so it is best to alleviate the cramps with these remedies during cold winter nights. Chamomile tea is a natural muscle relaxant, aids digestion, is anti-inflammatory, and has a soothing effect on nerves. It helps relieve cold stomachs and menstrual cramps as well. Ginger and turmeric are highly recommended for relieving cramps during chilly weather owing to their anti-inflammatory and relaxing properties. Add ginger to any tea or have a hot glass of milk with turmeric powder mixed into it.
Warm oil massage on the regions where cramping is frequent as this can help relieve stress and relax the muscles. Another go-to remedy to treat cramps is the heating pad during winter. No one can deny how simple and effective this remedy is for the twitches and cramps.
Sunlight converts the inactive form of vitamin D to the active form; thus, sun exposure is necessary to help with optimum vitamin D levels in the body, which also helps avoid muscles cramps. Besides sunlight, certain foods and fruits are also enriched in Vitamin D, which should be added to our daily diets. These include milk, egg, yogurt, salmon, cod liver oil, etc.
Increased Calcium Intake
Calcium plays the most crucial role in building our bone mass, increasing muscle mass, and maintaining the smooth functioning of our skeletal system. If there isn’t enough calcium intake from the diet, the body naturally consumes calcium stored in the bones to perform its vital functions.
Moreover, as women age, osteoporosis occurs, which causes calcium to leach out of their bones, causing bones to become brittle and increasing the chances of fractures, especially in hips, legs, and joints. Daily recommended intake of calcium (1000 to 1200 mg) must be ensured to maintain healthy bodily functions.
Muscle spasms are unpredictable and can be difficult to prevent. There are risk factors that you cannot avoid, like your age. But there are also things you can do to reduce your risk, like performing flexibility exercises regularly, working toward better overall fitness, stretch your muscles regularly, drinking lots of water, avoiding exercise in extreme weather, wearing shoes that fit you properly, staying at a weight that is healthy for you, and avoiding medications that may cause muscle spasms as a side effect.
To prevent leg cramps, use pillows to keep your toes pointed upward if you sleep on your back. If you sleep on your chest, hang your feet over the end of the bed. Stretch your muscles before you go to sleep. When you sleep, keep the sheets and blankets loose around your legs.