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Ester Marsh: Leg cramps are no joke

Leg cramps are more common during these hot temperatures.

If you have ever had one, you  know it’s no joke. Sometimes it is in the middle of the night while you are sleeping or during or after exercise. The most common leg cramps are exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC).

These can happen during or after exercise, typically when muscles are very tired. Dehydration and sodium deficiency seem to be the main causes, but there are many cases where these treatments are unsuccessful and the main cause remains unknown.

Without a clear cause, prevention and treatments are often unsuccessful. But as we all know, hydration is an important part of a healthy lifestyle and many people do benefit by hydrating appropriately.

The “rule of thumb” is to drink half of your body weight in ounces. I weigh 140 pounds, so I should take in 70 ounces of fluids (preferably water).

If you sweat a lot, include a sports drink to balance your electrolytes. The better your hydration, the more your body will tell you when to drink and how much.

Another challenge is when you get older your tendons naturally shorten (and get stiffer), which can result in leg cramps. Proper stretching each day and working on flexibility can help prevent cramps, which typically happen at night.

Another symptom that feels like leg cramps but isn’t is chronic exertional compartment syndrome (CECS). It’s an exercise-induced muscle and nerve condition where the muscle swells within its fascia (thin sheath of fibrous tissue enclosing the muscle).

It’s most common in athletes who participate in a sport that involves repetitive impact such as running or fast walking. In severe cases, surgery is required to alleviate the pressure within the fascia. A very uncommon cause could be popliteal artery entrapment syndrome (PAES), an anatomical “defect” where the artery in the popliteal fossa (“knee pit” or indention behind the knee) becomes entrapped, typically during exercise, and causes lower leg pain/“cramps.”

An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and MR angiography (a medical test that helps physicians diagnose and treat medical conditions related to blood vessels) can diagnose this congenital (present from birth) deformity.

So if you are someone who is stricken with many leg cramps, start recording when they happen. Is it exercise induced? Is it right after or during exercise? Do they happen during the night? Have you started exercising too much too soon? Are you hydrating enough? Are your muscles too tight?

If it continues, have your doctor check your sodium levels. And when needed, he or she will order a MRI and/or MR angiography.

I have had leg cramps, they are very painful and the discomfort lasts days after the initial cramp. I believe awareness, proper hydration, working on flexibility and nutrition and a sensible exercise plan can prevent muscle cramps for most people. If it doesn’t, consult your family physician.

Ester H. Marsh is Health & Fitness Director of the JF Hurley Family YMCA.

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