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What's the best cure for leg cramps?

Monday, March 12, 2007
Whether you're a lunchtime jogger or a super-fit athlete, nobody's immune to leg cramps. But what causes a cramp and what's the most effective way to stop it from happening to you?

Sports cramps actually aren't the most common ones, as we discovered at Bond University in Queensland.

"The most common sort of cramps are what we call nocturnal cramps — the ones you get at night, that wake you up and have you hopping around," says Professor Chris Del Mar, who is the Dean of Health Science and Medicine at the university.

So how long does a typical night cramp last?

"It usually only lasts a few minutes, but it's certainly more than seconds. Sometimes they can reoccur, but usually it settles down and you can go back to sleep," says the professor.

When our muscles function normally they work antagonistically, contracting on one side and lengthening on the other, then reversing the motion as our arm or leg swings the other way. When a cramp hits, the muscle spasms, but stays there. Blood can't flow properly into the muscle to help it lengthen and the unbearable pain starts — that's what causes cramps.

But how to prevent them?

The test

To find out, we've enlisted the help of two guys who get agonising cramps.

Peter Kirlew often suffers them when he's playing with his dog. But they can happen anytime, especially at night.

"It's usually my hamstrings but I also get it in my calves. If I've been for a run, I'll actually wake up in middle of night with my leg just balling up," says Peter.

Our second cramp candidate is part-time picture framer, Neville Cowan. He's suffered night cramps for nearly ten years and he's sick of it.

"I shoot out of bed and start walking around as best as I can to try and work it out," he says.

An easy cure would be a big relief to cramp sufferers like Neville and Peter, so we're going to test two home remedies.

  • Peter's going to drink tonic water — it contains small amounts of quinine. Doctors have prescribed quinine in tablet form as a cramp cure for decades. So for two weeks, Pete's going to drink a small bottle of tonic water, morning and night.

  • Neville's going to take a daily mega B vitamin tablet. A clinical study at the Taipai Medical College in the Republic of China found vitamin B may help.

But Professor Del Mar says the evidence is pretty slim for both our home remedies.

We'll measure our cramp candidates' progress over a two-week period.

Results

Two weeks later, how have the cramps been for our two remedy testers?

"As a sceptic before I'm really quite surprised, I actually haven't had a cramp in the whole two weeks. It's been really quite amazing. I wasn't expecting it to work particularly as quickly as what it had done," says Peter.

Professor Chris Del Mar was just as surprised: "The amount of quinine in tonic water is absolutely miniscule, it's probably a dose so low it wouldn't do any good and it probably won't do any harm either, so I think it's quite safe to keep drinking gin and tonic — so long as there's not too much gin!"

The professor was even more doubtful about the effectiveness of Neville's mega B vitamins but Neville found success with the vitamin B. Another winner! So what does professor Del Mar think of that?

"I've just been pulling out some of the research that's been done on this. Although there's not a lot of work that's been done on vitamin B, there is one modest trial that I've found and there seemed to be a slight suggestion that the vitamin B complex was helpful for people who took the vitamin B complex, so it could actually be effective," he says.

So both Peter and Neville might be on to a good thing.

Now so far we've concentrated on night cramps, but as many athletes will tell you, sports related cramps are also very common, so how do we deal with those?

Sports physician, Dr Anik Shawdon, works with the Melbourne Victory soccer team. She says there's only one cure for sports cramp: "When you actually sense a cramp coming on, the first thing to do is stop doing what you're doing and to stretch out the muscle group that's being cramped."

Stretching reduces pressure on the contracted muscle, allowing it to relax.

"So you need to stop and stretch out that muscle. So if it's in your calf, you do your calf stretch. If it's in the back of the hamstring, just stretch it out," says Dr Shawdon.

Here's one more tip from Dr Shawdon — warm up and stretch before you exercise and have another stretch when you're done.

Conclusion

So it looks like we'll just have to learn to live with cramps. They can be mighty painful, especially when they arrive suddenly in the middle of the night but the good news is, they don't last for long. But if they're cramping your style, go and see your GP.


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