Muscle cramps: A comparison of the two-leading hypothesis

J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2018 Aug;41:89-95. doi: 10.1016/j.jelekin.2018.05.006. Epub 2018 May 26.


Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps (EAMC) are a common painful condition of muscle spasms. Despite scientists tried to understand the physiological mechanism that underlies these common phenomena, the etiology is still unclear. From 1900 to nowadays, the scientific world retracted several times the original hypothesis of heat cramps. However, recent literature seems to focus on two potential mechanisms: the dehydration or electrolyte depletion mechanism, and the neuromuscular mechanism. The aim of this review is to examine the recent literature, in terms of physiological mechanisms of EAMC. A comprehensive search was conducted on PubMed and Google Scholar. The following terminology was applied: muscle cramps, neuromuscular hypothesis (or thesis), dehydration hypothesis, Exercise-Associated muscle cramps, nocturnal cramps, muscle spasm, muscle fatigue. From the initial literature of 424 manuscripts, sixty-nine manuscripts were included, analyzed, compared and summarized. Literature analysis indicates that neuromuscular hypothesis may prevails over the initial hypothesis of the dehydration as the trigger event of muscle cramps. New evidence suggests that the action potentials during a muscle cramp are generated in the motoneuron soma, likely accompanied by an imbalance between the rising excitatory drive from the muscle spindles (Ia) and the decreasing inhibitory drive from the Golgi tendon organs. In conclusion, from the latest investigations there seem to be a spinal involvement rather than a peripheral excitation of the motoneurons.

Keywords: Dehydration hypothesis; EAMC; Muscle Cramps; Neuromuscular hypothesis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Muscle Cramp / etiology
  • Muscle Cramp / physiopathology*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiopathology
  • Water-Electrolyte Balance