Muscle Cramps

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What are muscle cramps?

Muscle cramps result from an involuntary contraction of the skeletal muscles and are a common symptom of dehydration, fatigue, poor circulation, and nerve compression. Muscle fatigue from improper conditioning or prolonged exercise is a common cause of muscle cramps. Other common causes include sitting in one place for a long period of time and vascular disorders, both of which decrease blood circulation to the muscles.

Leg cramps, sometimes called charley horses, are sudden and uncontrollable muscle contractions or spasms. They can occur with exercise or while sleeping and usually resolve just as quickly as they came. The pain from muscle cramps can be intense, but can often be relieved with gentle stretching and massage.

Electrolyte depletion in the blood can also lead to muscle cramps. In rare cases muscle cramps can be a symptom of kidney disorders. The endocrine condition diabetes may be accompanied by cramping of muscles in the legs and arms, and hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can also cause muscle cramps. Depending on the cause, cramping may occur in one muscle or a group of muscles, and it may be accompanied by sharp pain and a hard visible lump in the muscle.

Muscle cramps may be a sign of dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, which can result in shock or coma and may be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms of severe dehydration, such as loss of consciousness and no urine production.

What other symptoms might occur with muscle cramps?

Muscle cramps may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the muscles may also involve other body systems.

Muscle symptoms that may occur along with muscle cramps

Muscle cramps may accompany other symptoms affecting the muscle including:

Other symptoms that may occur along with muscle cramps

Muscle cramps may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

Rarely, muscle cramps caused by dehydration may be so severe that a life-threatening situation can develop. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of the following symptoms:

  • Absent or diminished pulse
  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
  • Darkened urine
  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Irritability
  • Severe abdominal pain

What causes muscle cramps?

Muscle cramps result from an involuntary contraction of a skeletal muscle. Overuse, prolonged exercise without proper conditioning, and fatigue are common causes of muscle cramps. In addition, dehydration and depletion of electrolytes, including magnesium, calcium and potassium, can lead to muscle cramps.

Diabetes-related artery disease might reduce circulation to a muscle and cause cramping. Not moving a muscle for a long period of time may also lead to muscle cramps when circulation is reduced or a nerve is compressed. Cramping can also result from low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).

Musculoskeletal causes of muscle cramps

Muscle cramps may have musculoskeletal causes including:

  • Failure to stretch and warm up a muscle prior to exercise
  • Muscle strain
  • Overexertion (prolong exercise without proper fluid and electrolyte replacement)
  • Overuse injury
  • Remaining in one position for an extended period of time

Other causes of muscle cramps

Muscle cramps can also have other causes including:

  • Arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • Dehydration (loss of body fluids and electrolytes, which can be life threatening when severe and untreated)
  • Diabetes (chronic disease that affects your body’s ability to use sugar for energy)
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
  • Ischemia (insufficient flow of blood to any tissue)
  • Nerve entrapment or compression such as of the ulnar nerve in the arm
  • Peripheral neuropathy (possible pelvic mass)
  • Some kidney diseases

Serious or life-threatening causes of muscle cramps

In some cases, muscle cramps may be a symptom of severe dehydration, a loss of body fluids and electrolytes that can be life threatening and should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting.

Questions for diagnosing the cause of muscle cramps

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your muscle cramps including:

  • When did you first notice muscle cramps?
  • Where do you feel muscle cramps?
  • Are you regularly physically active?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of muscle cramps?

Because muscle cramps can be due to serious conditions, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

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  1. Muscle Cramps. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
  2. Muscle Cramp. AAOS: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
  3. Maquirriain J, Merello M. The athlete with muscular cramps: clinical approach. J Am Acad Orthop Surg 2007; 15:425
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 19
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