As common as they are, muscle cramps are something of a medical mystery -- they can affect anyone at any time, and it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly why they develop. Although any muscle within your control can cramp, leg muscles, including calves, hamstrings and quadriceps, are especially prone to these tight and often painful involuntary contractions. Eating bananas won’t help you release leg cramps, but it may help you prevent them in the first place.
If you’re prone to leg cramps, chances are you’ve been told you should eat more bananas. It’s a common piece of advice in the United States, where bananas are the most popular fruit and a leading source of potassium. Muscle cramps are sometimes a symptom of an electrolyte imbalance -- particularly low magnesium or potassium levels -- that can be brought on by the use of laxatives or diuretics, certain health conditions or excessive sweating. Exercise -- especially in a hot environment -- is a common cause of muscle cramps, which is why endurance athletes often consume sports drinks that supply potassium, magnesium and and other electrolytes. While bananas are just as useful in protecting against muscle cramps, they won’t necessarily provide relief when one strikes.
The average banana supplies about 420 milligrams of potassium, or just under 10 percent of the 4,700 milligrams that most adults should get each day. If your diet is low in potassium -- and the average American consumes 50 to 65 percent of the recommended amount, according to the Linus Pauling Institute -- eating a banana every day is an easy way to boost your intake. If you suspect that your leg cramps are caused by an electrolyte imbalance, go beyond bananas and follow a potassium-rich diet. Sweet potatoes, raisins, dried plums, dried beans, peas and lentils, winter squash, and cooked spinach are all excellent sources of the nutrient.
Whether they’re mild or painfully intense, muscle cramps usually subside within minutes and rarely require medical attention. Although downing a banana in the middle of a leg cramp won’t alleviate the problem, stretching and massaging the affected muscle can provide immediate relief. Tight muscles are susceptible to cramping, so it’s important to stretch regularly. The stretches that you use to keep your muscles flexible are the same stretches you should use when a cramp strikes. Walking can also help -- calf cramps tend to go away faster when you put your weight on your cramped leg. The American Osteopathic Association recommends applying heat to tight muscles and ice to sore or tender muscles.
You don’t have to be an endurance athlete to get leg cramps -- sitting or standing all day can cause them, as can drinking too much alcohol, not drinking enough water, being pregnant or wearing unsupportive shoes. Age can also be a factor -- middle-aged and older adults are more prone to nocturnal leg cramps, according to the Cleveland Clinic. If you drink plenty of water, stretch regularly, get enough potassium and still have a problem with leg cramps, talk to your physician. Leg cramps have been linked to a variety of serious conditions, including hypothyroidism, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.