You know the feeling. You can see the finish line but you can’t get there because of a sudden onset of a muscle cramp in your calf that is demanding you stop. Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance were originally thought to be the cause of muscle cramping; the current theory is one of central regulation. In other words, muscle fatigue or stress create an imbalance in signals from the muscle to the central nervous system. As a result, the central nervous system alters motor neuron control and signals the muscle to continue to contract resulting in a cramp. Factors thought to be related to exercise induced muscle cramps include prolonged activity, muscle fatigue, increased exercise intensity, high levels of static stretching prior to exercise, and multiple high intensity workout days prior to competition. Muscle cramps often resolve as spontaneously as they occur, and usually within a few seconds to a couple of minutes. Suggested treatment of a muscle cramp includes rest, prolonged stretching with the muscle at full length, and pickle juice! You might think that pickle juice is related to electrolyte imbalance, but a new theory suggests that certain molecules in pickle juice (or other pungent foods) attach to receptors in the mouth and upper GI tract that are directly connected with the central nervous system. These receptors help the central nervous system to reduce the signal to the cramping muscle, therefore diminishing the cramp and your discomfort. So the next time the end is in sight but a muscle cramp is holding you back, grab your pickle juice. Because finishing a race is an accomplishment – it’s kind of a big dill.
Murray B. How curiosity killed the cramp: emerging science on the cause and prevention of exercise-associated muscle cramps. AMAA Journal 2016; Fall/Winter: 5-7.
Megan Peach, DPT, OCS, CSCS specializes in manual treatment of spinal dysfunction, as well as knee and shoulder pain and is a member of the Excel Physical Therapy running specialist PT team. Megan’s philosophy for physical therapy treatment embraces educating patients about the tools they need for enhancement of proper body movements during work and play to promote a pain and injury free active lifestyle.
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