As a kid, I loved the funny sound of “charley horse.” Somewhere along the line, I learned that the term may have originated from a baseball pitcher who played in the late 1800s—Charley “Old Hoss” Radbourn evidently suffered from excruciating muscle cramps while playing baseball. Nowadays, I know how painful a muscle cramp can be, and as a naturopathic physician, I disagree with my medical doctor colleagues who believe that a muscle cramp is just one of those things you must “learn to live with.” The truth is, muscle cramps usually result from one of three causes—dehydration, muscle overuse or mineral deficiency. To protect yourself…
Get enough fluids. If you don’t get enough fluids, your risk for muscle cramps increases, especially while exercising. Soda, juice, coffee, diet drinks and even sweetened electrolyte-replacement beverages are no substitute for plain water. For adequate hydration: I recommend drinking one-half ounce of water per pound of body weight per day.* So, if you weigh 150 pounds, you should drink 75 ounces. It’s wise to increase your total daily water intake by 16 to 32 ounces if you are doing vigorous exercise (such as hiking, biking or running)…are out in hot weather (above 80º F)…are pregnant (a risk factor for muscle cramps)…are flying long distances (through two or more time zones)…or if you are starting a new project, such as gardening or house painting, involving physical activity that stresses the muscles in new ways.
Stretch your muscles properly. Sometimes we can’t avoid overusing our muscles. But we can stretch. This should be done before overusing your muscles, but if you forget, then do so afterward and again before bed. What to do: Immediately after vigorous activity, spend 10 minutes elongating the muscles you used, especially those of the thigh, calf and low back, which are most likely to suddenly spasm. For example, try forward bends (bend from the waist to touch the floor, if possible—use a table edge for support if you feel unsteady)…and calf stretches (put your hands on the wall while standing about three feet away from it—lean in, elongating the calf muscles).
Get the right minerals. Inadequate blood levels of such minerals as magnesium, potassium and sodium will increase your risk for muscle spasms. Most people get plenty of sodium in their diets but lose much of it when they perspire during exercise and/or are out in hot weather. Potassium and magnesium in vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and fresh fruit are most readily available for absorption. However, if you suffer from muscle spasms, talk to your doctor about taking daily mineral supplements of potassium and magnesium to ensure adequate levels. Be sure to consult your doctor first if you have kidney or heart disease or take any type of medication.
Try homeopathy. The homeopathic remedies Mag phos (6x) and Kali phos (6x), taken together, often relieve muscle cramps. The remedies, manufactured by Hyland’s/Standard Homeopathic, are available in stores selling natural medicines. Dissolve two pellets of each remedy (four pellets total) under the tongue. Repeat the same dose every 10 minutes for up to one hour until the pain is gone.
*Talk to your doctor before significantly changing your daily water intake.
Jamison Starbuck, ND, is a naturopathic physician in family practice and a guest lecturer at the University of Montana, both in Missoula. She is past president of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians and a contributing editor to The Alternative Advisor: The Complete Guide to Natural Therapies and Alternative Treatments (Time Life).