Exercise-associated muscle cramps: causes, treatment, and prevention

Sports Health. 2010 Jul;2(4):279-83. doi: 10.1177/1941738109357299.


Context: Exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMC) are a common condition experienced by recreational and competitive athletes. Despite their commonality and prevalence, their cause remains unknown. Theories for the cause of EAMC are primarily based on anecdotal and observational studies rather than sound experimental evidence. Without a clear cause, treatments and prevention strategies for EAMC are often unsuccessful.

Evidence acquisition: A search of Medline (EBSCO), SPORTDiscus, and Silverplatter (CINHAL) was undertaken for journal articles written in English between the years 1955 and 2008. Additional references were collected by a careful analysis of the citations of others' research and textbooks.

Results: Dehydration/electrolyte and neuromuscular causes are the most widely discussed theories for the cause of EAMC; however, strong experimental evidence for either theory is lacking.

Conclusions: EAMC are likely due to several factors coalescing to cause EAMC. The variety of treatments and prevention strategies for EAMC are evidence of the uncertainty in their cause. Acute EAMC treatment should focus on moderate static stretching of the affected muscle followed by a proper medical history to determine any predisposing conditions that may have triggered the onset of EAMC. Based on physical findings, prevention programs should be implemented to include fluid and electrolyte balance strategies and/or neuromuscular training.

Keywords: cramping; dehydration; electrolytes; fatigue; stretching.