Muscle-Cramps: Football’s Year-Round Battle

By Matt Weik, BS, CSCS, CPT, CSN, Fitness Expert & Author, MattWeik.com

Despite their common frequency of occurrence, most football players do not properly understand what a muscle cramp is, let alone why it happens.


Virtually every athlete who plays football invariably experiences muscle cramps. And whether it happens on the field during games, on the practice field, or in the gym during athletic performance training sessions, the searing pain that accompanies muscle cramps are not easily forgotten, and they are something that players do not want to experience again.

In this article, we’ll examine the different types of cramps, causes of cramping and good methods for keeping them in check.

What Is A Cramp?

A muscle cramp is an involuntarily and forcibly contracted muscle that does not relax. Muscle cramps vary in severity and can normally last anywhere from a few seconds to up to fifteen minutes. In rare instances, they can even last longer than fifteen minutes.

A cramp can persist numerous times until it eventually goes away. Cramps can effect the muscles differently – for instance, it can affect an entire group of muscles, a single muscle or even a specific-part within a muscle.

Cramps are very common not only in athletes, but also to someone who is sedentary all-day long. People of all ages alike can be victim to cramping.  Unfortunately, as you age, your chance of frequent cramping  also increases.

Can All Muscles Cramp?

All skeletal muscles can cramp at any given moment. A common cramp that the majority of the population has experienced at one time or another occurs with the calf muscle (often nick-named a “charley horse”). Most cramps occur in the extremities and especially within the legs.

Different Types Of Cramps

Cramps are classified according to the muscle groups they affect and their different causes. There are four types of skeletal muscle cramps:

  • Contractures
  • True Cramps
  • Tetany
  • Dystonic cramps

Cramp Type No.1: True Cramps

True cramps are caused by hyper-excitability of the nerves within a muscle. They can involve a part or whole muscle groups. True cramps are the most-common type of skeletal muscle cramps.

True cramps can occur due to many factors.

Vigorous Activity: In football athletes, muscle fatigue, as well as vigorous use of the muscles can cause cramping. These cramps can occur either during activity or after the activity. Older individuals are at a higher risk for cramping while doing any type of intense physical activities.

Just the opposite case can also cause true muscle cramping. If an individual is lying or even sitting in an awkward position for a long period of time, true cramps can result.

Injury: An injury alone can cause cramping. Cramping can occur as a protective mechanism following an injury. In this case, the cramp occurs to stabilize the injury and to minimize movement from that area.

Dehydration: Dehydration is mainly caused by warm weather in which it can be an early sign of something more serious such as heat stroke. Athletes and those individuals who are doing vigorous activities are more likely to become dehydrated due to fluid loss from perspiration.

In the competitive bodybuilding world, bodybuilders are commonly found using products that are classified as diuretics to push out any extra water they are carrying so that their definition will be better on stage.

While trying to put out the water, many bodybuilders lower sodium levels so they do not retain any water that they lost. This loss of sodium can cause dehydration and cramping. That is why when someone is cramping, they are sometimes given a salt tablet to take with some water.

Low Potassium Levels: When potassium levels are low, muscles are weakened and muscle cramps can occur. Eating bananas will help keep potassium levels normal so that the chances of cramping are minimized.

Low Blood Calcium, Magnesium: When there are low levels of calcium or magnesium in the blood, nerve endings and muscles are affected. This can be caused by use of diuretics, inadequate calcium and magnesium in the diet, inadequate vitamin D in the diet, and excessive vomiting.

The excitability of muscles and nerve endings are increased when there are low blood calcium and magnesium levels, which cause muscle cramping.

Rest Cramps: Older individuals as well as children can suffer from rest cramps. Rest cramps are mainly experienced during the night. These cramps are disruptive to sleep, but are not life-threatening in any way. Rest cramps can happen on any given night and even many times a night.

A common place to experience rest cramps would be in the calf. Rest cramps in the calf that occur at night are due to a shortening of the calf muscle – which can happen while lying in bed and pointing your toes down.

Even though they understand how you get a cramp in your calf at night, the cause of night cramps is still unknown.

Cramp Type No. 2: Tetany

Tetany is a type of cramping which activates all of the nerve endings in the body. Accordingly, it then effects the muscles of the body and cramping occurs throughout the body. Tetany cramps also affect other nerve functions of different muscles and various areas of the body.

For instance, when there is a low blood calcium level in the body (similar to a true cramp), there could be a cramping of the arm yet the individual could also feel tingling and numbness around the mouth or other areas.

Cramp Type No. 3: Contractures

Contractures occur when the muscles aren’t able to relax. They are caused by the depletion of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is a source of energy within a cell structure. A muscle uses ATP energy during activity.

Because of this depletion of ATP in the cell, it does not allow the muscle fiber to relax. This form of muscle spasm occurs without nerve activity. This type of cramp can either be acquired or inherited.

Cramp Type No. 4: Dystonic Cramps

Dystonic cramps are where a muscle that is not needed for a movement is contracted. For instance, the cramp would occur with a muscle that is working in the opposite direction of the intended movement. These types of cramps usually effects the smaller muscle groups such as the jaw, eyelids, larynx, etc.

Other Causes of Cramping – There are numerous medicines out there that can cause cramping. One example would be anything containing a diuretic. Individuals with vitamin deficiencies such as thiamine (B1), pantothenic acid (B5), and pyridoxine (B6) can cause cramping.

Symptoms, Diagnosis of Muscle Cramps – A cramp is painful and can stop a football athlete in his tracks, until the cramp is taken care of and relieved. During a cramp, the muscle will be tender and will be bulged and firm.

The muscle that is cramping will not be able to be used until the cramp is gone. In some cases, sever cramping can cause inflammation and soreness for several days after the cramp has occurred.

There are no specific tests for cramps – but most individuals know when a cramp is occurring a cramp.

Treatment For Muscle Cramps – When a muscle cramp occurs, if the muscle can be stretched, the knot will be released and the cramp will go away. In most cases when a cramp is in the lower extremities, by walking around it should loosen the knot in the muscle and the cramp will go away.

For cramps in the hand and forearm, an individual can release cramp by pressing their hand on a flat surface, which will stretch out the muscles in the hand as well as the forearm.

Another technique to relieve a cramp would be to apply a warm heating pad. If the individual is cramping due to dehydration/fluid loss, ice packs may help relieve the cramp. If dehydration is the cause, an individual must take in some fluids and replenish electrolytes.

Massaging the effected muscle area is another technique known to relieve a common muscle cramp. Massages help the muscle to relax and relieves the built up tension.

There are no medicines prescribed for cramps. Since cramps vary due to situation, there is nothing that can be used to cure cramping when it happens. Cramp also come and go fairly quickly, therefore, the cramp would be gone by the time any medicine would actually kick in.

Preventing Muscle Cramps

Activity: If you are prone to cramping during exercising, it is best to stretch before and after the activity. It is also smart to warm-up and cool down properly. Also, make sure you are properly hydrated before, during and after the activity.

Dystonic Cramps: These types of cramps can be avoided by paying attention to ergonomic factors, which could be the root-cause of the cramping. Another factor to help prevent dystonic cramps would be to avoid excessive tension while performing the activity, which normally causes the cramping.

Rest Cramps: Rest cramps can help be prevented by making sure you stretch regularly (especially before bed if you suffer from night cramps). It is also important to make sure you have adequate calcium and magnesium levels, which can help prevent night cramps. An additional dose of calcium before bed will suffice and help prevent cramps.

Matt Weik is a Certified Strength-and-Conditioning Specialist, a Certified Personal Trainer, a Certified Sports Nutritionist and Author/Blogger at MattWeik.com. Weik is also a Sales Manager at MET-Rx Team Sports. Contact Matt Weik at: mcwtrainer@aol.com

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