What are Cramps?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Cramps are spasms that occur in muscular systems. There are many different situations that can cause these painful sensations throughout the body, from overexertion to dehydration. Generally, the condition is easily treatable at home, but people who experience chronic or constant muscle cramps may want to consider consulting a health care professional for advice and help.

A person with leg cramps.
A person with leg cramps.

A cramp generally occurs when a muscle is unable to fully relax, causing a spasm that feels like a sharp pain throughout the area. Pain level can be quite mild, often described as a twinge, or extremely painful and long-lasting. The duration of pain can alter depending on the severity of the severity of the condition; it can last for just seconds or may stretch on for several minutes, and can easily recur if not properly treated.

Staying hydrated helps prevent cramps.
Staying hydrated helps prevent cramps.

One common cause of cramps is overexertion. Repetitive motion, such as lifting weight or long runs, can cause pain if the muscles are not fully stretched afterward. Cramping from overexertion can occur during an activity or even several hours later, as the muscles attempt to fully relax from strenuous activity. Some people experience more pain when exercising is done in a hot environment, usually due to dehydration and increased muscle fatigue.

A woman with menstrual cramps.
A woman with menstrual cramps.

Menstrual cramps affect women just prior to or during menstruation, and generally manifest as a dull ache throughout the abdomen or a sharp pain in the pelvic area. This type is caused by hormonal shifts that occur at the beginning of menstruation as well as contractions of the uterus that push out menstrual fluids. Some women experience little or no pain, while others suffer severe pain that can leave them temporarily debilitated. Certain birth control methods, such as an intrauterine device (IUD) can increase the severity of menstrual cramps.

Overexertion or dehydration can cause cramps in runners.
Overexertion or dehydration can cause cramps in runners.

Many instances of cramping are due to lack of proper electrolytes in the body. If the body becomes dehydrated, cells throughout muscle systems do not receive adequate amounts of electrolytes, such as sodium and magnesium. The lack of these vital salts in the body can lead the muscle to misfire and spasm, resulting in pain throughout the body. For this reason, many health experts recommend increasing water intake to help prevent this.

Menstrual cramps affect women and manifest as a dull pain throughout the abdominal area.
Menstrual cramps affect women and manifest as a dull pain throughout the abdominal area.

Some people experience cramping during periods of inactivity, such as while sleeping. These nocturnal pains often affect the feet, ankles, and calves and may contribute to sleeplessness and insomnia. A regular exercise routine, plenty of water, and daily stretching can help reduce the risk of nocturnal cramping.

Certain birth control methods, such as an intrauterine device (IUD), can increase the severity of menstrual cramps.
Certain birth control methods, such as an intrauterine device (IUD), can increase the severity of menstrual cramps.
Menstrual cramps occur prior to or during a woman's menstrual cycle.
Menstrual cramps occur prior to or during a woman's menstrual cycle.
An ice pack may be used to help relieve menstrual cramping.
An ice pack may be used to help relieve menstrual cramping.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


Hand and feet cramps often occur when the whole body feels chilled, especially when the weather suddenly turns cold. I found that when I put on warmer clothes and I drank a few cups of hot almond milk mixed with raw organic cacao powder and blended them thoroughly, then drank it. the cramps disappeared very fast. To sustain this, I also balled and opened my hands, fingers wide apart, repeatedly.



Toe cramps are the worst kind, in my opinion. My sister used to get these, and she would have to soak her foot in warm water to relax the muscles. She would sit there and cry, and it really worried me, because I was a little kid.

When I got a bit older, I started having toe cramps, and I saw why she had been in such distress. My toe actually curled in one direction and locked. Looking at it all twisted, I felt I had lost control, because I could not straighten it out.

Toe cramps hurt worse than large muscle cramps, because they are super focused. Even a little toe cramp can bring a large man to his knees.


@burcidi – I used to suffer from menstrual cramps so severe that I would have to leave work. The pain would be so awful that I would become nauseated and start to sweat. I would actually have to go lie down in the back room before being able to drive home.

Sometimes, taking a menstrual pain relief pill serves as a good cramp treatment. It takes care of the bloating and the pain, because it is a diuretic and an analgesic. Also, it has caffeine in it, which makes the analgesic more potent.

However, if you would like a more natural means of relief and prevention, try drinking peppermint tea. I don't know how it works, but it does. In addition to easing or preventing your cramps, it can take care of nausea.


@OeKc05 – Thanks for the tip! I've been having the same issues with thigh cramps, and I rarely eat bananas.

I also think that accidental dehydration might be to blame in my case. I drink more soda than water, and I've heard that caffeinated soda can dehydrate a person. I know that I drink too much of it, and I need to break the habit.

I just hate the taste of my tap water. If I get a water filter, maybe I can stand to drink the stuff. Right now, it just tastes like chlorine.

Until I get a filter, I will be eating bananas. I'm glad that you said that, because it is really traumatic to wake up to such pain.


@ysmina – I used to get those cramps in my legs, and I know how horrendous they can be. I used to wake up crying because they hurt so bad.

It felt like my calf muscle was being twisted, and no amount of massaging or stretching could help. In fact, they made it worse. All I could do was wait for the cramp to subside, which took way too long, in my opinion.

The reason the cramps occurred was because I wasn't getting enough potassium. I started eating a banana every day, and I stopped getting the cramps.

I know that the banana is what's helping, because if I go a couple of days without eating one, the cramps return. This is enough to motivate me to consume one at breakfast every day.


@burcidi, @ysmina-- I think those cramps before a period are related to ovulation or the movement of the egg through the tubes to the womb.

@ysmina-- Night cramps can be from injury, dehydration or a vitamin deficiency. Make sure you're drinking enough water and if you get these cramps often, you should get a blood test at the doctor's office. Then can check all your vitamin levels to see if you have a deficiency in something.

I did have some light cramping early in my pregnancy. My doctor had said that it's because of the changes that take place in the uterus for the baby. But the cramps were very light, very similar to menstrual aches. If the cramps are painful, more frequent and or if there is bleeding, she needs to go to the ER. Heavy cramps during pregnancy could be miscarriage cramps.


@burcidi-- I get those cramps way before my period too. I'd really like to know why that happens. Is it normal?

I also have two more questions about cramps. Sometimes, I get leg cramps, especially in my calves at night while I'm sleeping. It doesn't happen during the day. It's so sudden and painful that it wakes me up from my sleep! I've been assuming that it's dehydration and get up to drink water. Could there be another reason for it?

Also, my older sis is three months pregnant. She sometimes complains of light cramping in her lower abdomen. I've offered to take her to the emergency when it happens but since it doesn't last long and there is no bleeding or anything like that, she doesn't want to go. She has a check up with her doctor in two weeks. I don't know if it's safe for her to wait until then. Are cramps during early pregnancy common?


I get menstrual cramps every month. If I'm not stressed, I only get a dull ache several weeks before my period starts and then the first two days of my period. It's not very painful and a small dose of pain reliever makes it disappear. I understand why I get this kind of cramp in the first couple of days. But I'm not sure why it happens several weeks before.

If I'm going through a really stressful time, I get severe cramping in the first two or three days of my period. This is the kind of cramping that prevents me from getting out of bed. It's very sharp, and comes in contractions every couple of minutes.

I remember days where I'd be crying in my bed for most of the day from the pain. Even pain relievers don't help much when the cramping is really bad. I only get severe period cramps when I'm tired and stressed.

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