We all know that moment when you're fast asleep and all of a sudden a muscle cramp rips you from your dreams and makes you think, "this is it, this is how it ends".
Muscle cramps are both terrifying and bloody excruciating, but what are they, really?
"When we experience a muscle cramp it is usually a result of a sudden and involuntary contraction or spasm of one or more of your muscles," Robbie Clark, dietitian and sports nutritionist, told The Huffington Post Australia.
"The cramp contractions are associated with repetitive firing of motor neurons and nerve impulses in the muscle. This causes the muscle to shorten and seize up, which in some cases can be painful."
A commonly thought reason for muscle cramps is a lack of certain nutrients. While this is true, there are also various other reasons that can cause these often unbearable muscle cramps.
Prevention is always the cure. Make sure you stay well hydrated and implement good nutrition and hydration protocols around training and heavy exercise.
"It is true that muscle tissue relies, in part, on a range of minerals, electrolytes and other chemicals in order to contract and relax," Clark said.
"Some of these important substances include calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. Poor diet, dehydration, vomiting and diarrhoea may disturb the body's balance of minerals and electrolytes and as a result, make muscles more susceptible to cramping."
Other reasons why muscle cramps may occur include:
- Muscle fatigue or injury
- Inadequate blood supply to the muscle (narrowing of the arteries) e.g. atherosclerosis
- Nerve compression
- Use of diuretics and other medications
- Metabolic disorders
- Neuron disorders
- Poor muscle tone
- Poor gastrointestinal absorption (IBS, coeliac disease, crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis)
- Tight or inflexible muscles
- Excessive sweating
- Physical exertion of cold muscles
According to Clark, maintaining proper nutrition may help reduce muscle cramps.
"Prevention is always the cure. Make sure you stay well hydrated and implement good nutrition and hydration protocols around training and heavy exercise," he said.
"Optimise gut health to guarantee good absorption of the important nutrients involved in muscle function.
"Avoid restrictive diets and if you feel you are not getting all the nutrients your body requires, a dietitian can help to optimise your diet and food intake."
When it comes to diet and foods that can help prevent muscle cramps, Clark said it's important to consume a variety of foods which are high in the following nutrients.
"Your body requires sodium to maintain normal body-fluid balance and blood pressure. Sodium also works together with other electrolytes for nerve impulse generation and muscle contraction," Clark told HuffPost Australia.
"Be sure to get your sodium from unprocessed foods or natural sea or Himalayan rock salt. Some food sources containing sodium include pickled foods, cheese (cottage, feta, blue, cheddar, edam), beetroot, celery, carrots, pesto, smoked meats and fish, sauerkraut and olives."
"Potassium is the major electrolyte found inside all body cells and is critical for proper nervous system and muscular function, particularly for generation of electrical impulses, which is why your muscles can cramp if you're deficient."
Food sources containing potassium include fruits (especially melons, citrus, bananas, avocados), vegetables (especially potatoes, sweet potato, pumpkin), dairy and fish.
"Calcium plays a crucial role in skeletal and smooth muscle contraction, including in your heart, blood vessels and intestines. It also plays a role in nerve impulse generation, so calcium deficiency may contribute to impaired muscle contraction," Clark told HuffPost Australia.
"Food sources containing calcium include dairy, canned fish with edible bones (sardines, anchovies, pink salmon), dark, leafy greens, nuts and seeds and fortified tofu."
About one third of the magnesium in our body is located in our muscles where it is used for muscle contraction and relaxation.
"It also plays a crucial role in energy production, protein synthesis, nerve conduction and electrolyte balance," Clark said.
"Foods containing magnesium include legumes and soybeans, mackerel, avocado, nuts and seeds, dark, leafy greens, bananas, whole grains (brown rice, cereal), raw cocoa, dark chocolate, dried fruit and natural yoghurt."
If you do find yourself in the midst of a muscle cramp, Clark suggests the following actions.
1. Stretch -- Engage in light stretches that are focused around the major and minor muscle groups that are cramping. A physio or exercise physiologist can help guide you on the best stretches.
2. Hydrate -- Remain well hydrated so your body and muscles remain in fluid balance.
3. Massage -- Lengthening the cramping muscle by using gentle massage may help reduce the duration and severity of the cramp.
4. Ice pack -- In cases of severe cramps, an ice pack applied to the muscle for a few minutes may help.
5. Medical -- See your GP or physio if you experience regular muscle cramping or if cramps last longer than a few minutes, as there may be an underlying medical condition that requires treatment.