What causes muscle cramps/spasms?

Causes Of Muscle Cramps/Spasms

Muscle cramps, sometimes known as muscle spasms, can affect even the best trained, most nutritionally savvy, best-conditioned athletes. If you find yourself regularly experiencing muscle cramps, here’s what you need to know. 

What are muscle cramps?

Exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMC) are generally spasmodic and involuntary contractions of skeletal muscles that occur during or right after exercise. They result in bulging or knotting of the muscle and usually occur in multi-joint muscle groups when contracting in a shortened period (i.e. quadriceps, hamstrings, calves).

The duration of involuntary muscle spasms can vary but they can be very painful. Most muscle cramps will go away on their own over time, but it can take 30 minutes or more and keep you from doing what you set out to do. 

What causes muscle cramps? 

While muscle cramps can happen to everyone at some point or another, exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMC) are especially common.

A variety of factors have been cited as potential causes behind these exercise-related cramps, and the reasoning for your cramps can depend on your activity and the location of the involuntary cramp. 

For example, “side stitches” on the side of your abdomen are common amongst runners and are sometimes attributed to shallow breathing techniques that don’t allow adequate amounts of oxygen to the diaphragm muscle. But these are very different from EAMCs.

Many athletes and fitness enthusiasts have historically blamed electrolyte imbalance, nutrition, poor conditioning, and dehydration for their cramps. It is true that muscles need electrolytes like magnesium, potassium, sodium, and calcium to conduct small amounts of electricity, which then drives their movement. Maintaining healthy levels of hydration and electrolyte balance is important to optimal muscle performance.

However, new evidence is emerging that throws doubt over these popular theories as the trigger for muscle cramps. We now know cramping is almost always triggered by hyperactive nerves that fire uncontrollably into fatiguing muscles during intense exercise that causes muscles to then cramp up .

For example, one study that evaluated 210 Ironman triathlon athletes found that there was no significant difference between electrolyte concentrations in groups that reported cramping versus groups that did not. 

Instead, the study found that cramping was more heavily associated with athletes who competed at a faster pace, suggesting that the level of exercise intensity was a bigger predictor of cramping than dehydration. Another smaller-scale study also found that 69% of its subjects experienced exercise-associated muscle cramping even though they were well-hydrated and had plenty of electrolytes. 

Because of this, many scientists now believe that muscle cramping mostly likely stems from a neurological standpoint. What this means: during exercise or high-intensity activity like participating in a triathlon / Marathon or going for a long run,ride or swim, as your muscles fatigue, the motor neurons that control contraction begin to fire hyperactivity and uncontrollably into the fatiguing muscle.

Those hyper-excited neurons pound the muscle to the point that it eventually seizes or cramps up. This overexcitement of motor neurons can also contribute to the pain and stiffness of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in the following days as your muscles recover. 

Other risk factors for muscle cramps

Exercise isn’t the only thing that can induce involuntary cramping. For example, some people experience nighttime cramping in their legs or toes, also known as Charley horses, while they sleep. While there is still a lot of unknowns about nocturnal cramping, the belief is that some activity during the day fatigues the muscle, but the hyperactivity is delayed and doesn’t occur until the person is asleep. 

You might be more at risk for experiencing cramps if you’re: 

  • Older
  • Pregnant 
  • Have a nerve disorder 

How to reduce muscle cramps

For most people, the onset of a muscle cramp is unpredictable and can strike at any time. However, there are some measures that you can take to minimize your risk of cramping during a workout or a competition, as well as some methods for reducing the pain while it occurs. 

HOTSHOT for Muscle Cramps

HOTSHOT For Muscle Cramps can both prevent a muscle cramp from happening if taken before your workout or can treat an active cramp if taken when you feel the first signs of a cramp coming on. This sports shot works by targeting sensory nerves in your mouth, esophagus, and stomach, which when stimulated sends a calming signal through your spinal cord to inhibit the nerve's hyperactivity. Because it works by stimulating these sensory nerves, HOTSHOT can kill an active cramp within a few minutes or prevent a cramp for up to 4-6 hours..


Some health experts suggest stretching regularly to help improve your muscle flexibility and minimize the incidences of exercise-induced cramps. Stretching before bed is also a helpful measure if you’re prone to nighttime muscle cramping. 


Massage therapy is another potential solution for cramping muscles since it can encourage blood flow and oxygen to the cramping muscle. If you feel a cramp coming on, gently massage the area until it passes. 

Slow down or take a break

Because muscle fatigue is one of the driving factors behind muscle cramping, it’s to your benefit to pace yourself and know your physical limits in order to prevent triggering a muscle cramp due to overexertion. If you’re struck with a case of muscle cramping while you’re in the middle of your workout, and if you don’t have aHOTSHOT for Muscle Cramps handy, then take a break, stretch and rest until the cramp passes.

When to see a doctor about muscle cramps

Most muscle cramps will go away after using HOTSHOT for Muscle Cramps or after stretching and resting during the activity. But if your muscle cramps are very frequent, it could be a sign of another underlying health issue with your nerves or your blood circulation. 

So if you’re dealing with frequent, painful cramping, it’s worth checking in with your doctor to determine whether there’s an underlying condition that could be contributing to your muscle cramps. 

Key Takeaways

Involuntary muscle cramps can happen to almost anyone, but they’re an especially frequent problem among runners, cyclists, swimmers, and other fitness enthusiasts who are generally physically active. While the exact causes of muscle cramps can vary, the latest science points to overexcited motor neurons, especially when it comes to exercise-induced cramps. Take charge by starting your workout with HOTSHOT, and training efficiently so that unexpected cramps don’t throw a wrench in your favorite physical activities. 

Featured Image: Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

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