No one is sure exactly why leg cramps happen, but one thing is certain -- the sudden involuntary contraction of the calf muscle is painful for all who experience it. These cramps can happen to anybody, but they tend to happen most often to athletes in intense training, according to Sports Injury Clinic. Pregnant women are also highly susceptible. While it's not well-understood what triggers these painful episodes, there are plenty of theories about causes of leg cramps.
Insufficient consumption of fluids, minerals and electrolytes are believed to be one possible cause of calf cramps, according to women's health website Estronaut.com. Failure to drink fluids, especially on hot days or during a workout, can cause the body to lose electrolytes and minerals such as potassium, calcium and magnesium. Staying sufficiently hydrated should help to maintain electrolyte balance and prevent cramps. According to Estronaut.com, the website of fitness advocate Karen Sarpolis, M.D., taking calcium and magnesium supplements and eating foods that are rich in potassium, such as bananas and tomatoes, can also help.
Cramping Your Style
Another probable cause of cramps, especially when they strike during a workout, is tight muscles. Failure to warm up and stretch the calf muscles before exercising can cause the calf muscles to spasm and contract. It’s also possible to cause cramps by overdoing it; overexertion causes the muscle to lose oxygen, which in turn causes waste buildup and muscle spasms. Taking the time to warm up, stretch and cool down before and after your workout, and knowing the limits on how far to push yourself, should help to prevent a charlie horse.
People with peripheral arterial disease, or hardening of the arteries, sometimes experience calf pain that is similar to a cramp. This condition can slow the blood flow to the legs, especially during physical activity. With rest, this type of calf cramp usually goes away. However, if the muscle pain persists or is accompanied by swelling, redness or tenderness, you should call your doctor immediately, as this may be the sign of a blood clot.
Cramps During Pregnancy
Pregnant women are especially prone to calf cramps, although no one is sure why. One theory is that it’s caused by extra pregnancy weight; another is that the growing uterus puts pressure on blood vessels and nerve endings that affect the legs. They usually start happening in the second trimester and grow worse as pregnancy progresses. Stretching the calves throughout the day, not crossing the legs and staying properly hydrated should help to alleviate calf cramps during pregnancy, according to BabyCenter.com.