Hamstring cramps rank high on the pain and discomfort scale, and there's no question that an unexpected searing pain in your thigh while sleeping, sitting or exercising isn't a pleasant experience. If you experience hamstring cramps frequently, you should visit your doctor to make sure there's no underlying health concern. For occasional cramps, massage, stretching and heat or ice application will do the trick.
What is a Cramp?
Muscle cramps can happen anywhere in your body when seemingly out of nowhere your muscle stiffens and becomes tight and painful. The pain can be mild to moderate and usually dissipates within minutes. Typically, these involuntary muscles spasms are harmless. The most common causes of muscle cramps include:
- Tight muscles
- Failure to stretch before physical activity
- Exercising in hot weather
- Imbalances of electrolytes — sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium and phosphate — in the blood
If you experience more frequent cramps or if those cramps are severe and don't resolve with treatment, see your doctor. Sometimes an issue with circulation, nerves, metabolism, hormones, medications or nutrition can be to blame.
Treating a Hamstring Cramp
If you're exercising or doing something else active when you experience a hamstring cramp, stop the activity that caused the cramp. Wait a few seconds to minutes for the pain to dissipate, then take the following steps:
Step 1: Static Stretch
Step the foot of the cramping leg out in front of you. Place the heel of the foot down and lift the toes back toward your face. Keep the leg straight and fold forward over the leg as far as is comfortable to stretch the hamstring. Hold the stretch for until the cramp stops.
Step 2: Gentle Massage
Use your fingertips to gently massage the hamstring muscle, which can help lessen the pain and encourage blood flow to the hamstring. Be careful not to press too hard.
Step 3: Heat or Ice Application
Apply heat from a heating pad or hot water to the hamstring if it continues to feel tense or tight after the cramp. Apply a cold pack to the hamstring if it feels sore or tender after the cramp.
Preventing Hamstring Cramps
With a little planning and preparation, you can prevent or lessen the occurrence of expletive-inducing hamstring cramps. Here's how:
Warm up before activity: Don't go into the gym cold and do hamstring curls. That's a recipe for a cramp. Warm up with a brief walk or jog to get the blood flowing. The same is true for a cardio workout; ease into it by gradually ramping up your pace before going all out.
Stretch before exercise: Doing dynamic stretches before you exercise warms up the muscles and primes them for activity so they're less likely to cramp. Dynamic stretches for the hamstrings include leg swings and high knees.
Stretch after exercise: Doing longer static stretches after you exercise helps lengthen the muscle and prevent pain and cramping in the hours post-workout. Try seated or standing forward folds. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute.
Drink plenty of fluids: How much you need to drink depends on lots of variables including your activity level, gender, the weather, your diet and any medications you take. At a minimum, drink six 8-ounce glasses of water or other unsweetened beverage each day.
Eat lots of plant foods: Fruits, vegetables and nuts are the best sources of important electrolytes like magnesium and potassium. Leafy greens, bananas and almonds are good sources.