Remedies to Treat Muscle Cramp Pain
Muscle and leg cramps are inconvenient, and over time can begin to impair your day-to-day activities. The good news? There are many different remedies, besides medications and supplements, for the treatment of muscle and leg cramps.
But everyone is different and muscle cramps can happen for many different reasons. This means that different types of adjunct remedies may require trial-and-error to find one that works best for you.
In this article, we will dive into the different proposed non-medical remedies that may help treat muscle cramps, and what the science has to say behind each remedy. It’s important to note that these remedies will not treat the underlying cause of muscle cramps but may help control and improve your symptoms.
At the first onset of a muscle cramp, try applying a cold compress to the affected area. The cold compress may help slow down the nerve impulses that are causing the involuntary contraction of the muscles and reduce pain .
It is important to protect your skin and avoid frostbite by wrapping the cold compress in a cloth or fabric. Furthermore, avoid applying a cold compress for more than 20 minutes, as long periods of cold treatments could damage muscles and nerves .
Sport science experts suggest that heat should be applied a few days after the muscle cramp episode . Try applying a warm cloth or heating pad to the cramping area to help decrease the tightness of the muscles and improve blood flow.
Similar to the cold treatment, make sure you are protecting your skin by placing a fabric barrier between the heating compress and your skin to avoid burns.
A massage may not just help reduce stress but could also reduce the duration and frequency of their muscle cramps.
The Chicago Fit Institute of Physical Therapy suggests that massages should be given after the cramp has subsided, and not during the cramping episode itself .
One randomized control trial of people living with kidney disease and muscle cramps found that a 20-minute massage three times per week decreased muscle cramps by 80% . The massages performed in the study consisted of pressure applied in a circular motion with the thumbs and palms from the knee to the ankle.
It’s important to note that these patients were receiving dialysis during the massage, and the results may not be the same for people without dialysis or kidney disease. However, research still shows that massages in general can improve blood flow, decrease stress and inflammation which could improve muscle cramping .
The interest in essential oils - or aromatherapy - has exploded over the past few years, mostly due to interest surrounding their relaxing and stress-reducing scents.
Essential oils are the fragrant part of the plant that is extracted and preserved in an oil. These essential oils can be inhaled or applied topically. The National Cancer Institute suggests that these oils may reduce pain and anxiety and can help improve overall quality of life by reducing stress .
While no scientific evidence has been published on using essential oils or aromatherapy for muscle cramps, essential oils may be part of a massage used to treat muscle cramps.
While essential oils are generally considered safe, some people can experience rashes or serious allergic reactions. Always read the label and safety precautions before use and consult your doctor before using.
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine that is often used for pain relief. It is based on the movement of energies, or qi, from different body parts to another. Needles are inserted into different points of the body to relieve and restore these energies. Researchers suggest that these small, painless needles cause a natural release of our body’s painkillers to reduce pain .
A systematic review and meta-analysis of acupuncture for the treatment of muscle and skeletal pain found that people receiving acupuncture compared to a placebo treatment significantly reduced their pain .
Although this study did not specifically investigate leg or muscle cramps, participants did see improvement for shoulder pain, neck pain and lower back pain.
Compression socks are special socks that are designed to improve blood flow from the lower limbs. They are often used for people with diabetes, prevent venous ulcers and reduce leg swelling.
As compression socks can improve blood flow, they may help reduce pain and soothe muscle cramps. In fact, one study on participants with leg pain showed quality of life improved when they wore compression socks .
Electrotherapy is a newer therapy that manipulates the electric currents in your muscles and nerves. Tiny electrodes are placed on the cramping area, and small waves of electricity pass through the body to help improve symptoms.
As muscle cramps can be due to an overstimulation of excitatory nerve impulses, electrotherapy may be able to calm these impulses , and reduce muscle cramping. A clinical trial found that calf cramps were reduced after patients underwent electrotherapy .
Electrotherapy is not considered a first line treatment, and should be discussed with your doctor to make sure the therapy could be safe and effective for you.
Exercise & Stretching
Last but not least, exercise can be a preventative and therapeutic approach to muscle cramps.
One theory of muscle cramping is that an important tension-sensor, known as the golgi tendon organ does not sense the intense contractions during a muscle cramp. Normally, the golgi tendon organ would inhibit further contractions, limiting cramping and spasms .
The golgi tendon organ can be less effective when the muscle is contracted, or in its shortened position. Therefore, exercises and stretches that lengthen the muscle can help the golgi tendon organ prevent further spasms or cramps .
This can include:
- Stretching the calf or leg by pulling up on toes
- Walking regularly
- Avoid exercising until muscles are fatigued
- Avoid “shortening” exercises, like hamstring curls
For more information on how different exercises and stretching can reduce muscle and leg cramping, read our full article here.
The bottom line
There are many different remedies that can help control the symptoms associated with muscle and leg cramps. While some remedies have more scientific evidence than others, most of these remedies are generally safe and could be effective for muscle cramps.
Before trying a new remedy, discuss with your doctor or another health care professional what treatment, in addition to medications and supplements, might be best for you.
- Northwest Medical Centre. (2021, January 01). Muscle Spasms. Medicine. https://nw-mc.com/muscle-spasms/#:~:text=Heat%20Therapy.,reduces%20the%20potential%20for%20dehydration
- Cheung, K., Hume, P. A., & Maxwell, L. (2003). Delayed onset muscle soreness. Sports medicine, 33(2), 145-164.
- Chicago Institute of Physical Therapy. (2018, April 23). Massage Therapy: Effective in Alleviating Muscle Cramps and Spasms. Blog. https://thefitinstitutechicago.com/massage-therapy-muscle-spasms/
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- National Cancer Institute. (2019, November 07). Aromatherapy with Essentail Oils. CAM for Patients. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/patient/aromatherapy-pdq#link/_50
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- Behringer, M., Harmsen, J. F., Fasse, A., & Mester, J. (2018). Effects of neuromuscular electrical stimulation on the frequency of skeletal muscle cramps: a prospective controlled clinical trial. Neuromodulation: Technology at the Neural Interface, 21(8), 815-822.
- Behringer, M., Moser, M., McCourt, M., Montag, J., & Mester, J. (2014). A promising approach to effectively reduce cramp susceptibility in human muscles: a randomized, controlled clinical trial. PloS one, 9(4), e94910.