With the fall sports season quickly approaching, I wanted to educate our readers on the causes, treatments and myths about muscle cramps. There are new studies out there that debunk many of these myths.
Today, I had the chance to speak with WAKR host Ray Horner about this topic. We now are beginning to understand that it’s not so much dehydration, but instead electrolyte loss.
Below is an audio file and transcript of our discussion.
Horner: Now, Dr. Joe Congeni, Sports Medicine Center at Akron Children’s Hospital. Joe, [it’s that] time of the year for practices and then the fall sports [will soon] get going. Often when I’m doing football games on the radio, we’ll see a lot of the cramping and such. You wanted to do a little education with us on the cramping side, this morning?
Dr. Congeni: Yeah, you know that’s the time you can get your filler in and talk about other things, while we’re out there tending to those muscle cramps.
Horner: [laughter] Pointing those toes, right?
Dr. Congeni: It’s not just you. I know you do a lot of football telecasts. If you go to soccer games this time of year, there’ll be just about as many soccer cramps, too. So, it’s any of the real endurance sports.
We don’t have it all the way nailed down yet, but there are a few new studies that I wanted to touch on this morning and just talk about three things: the causes, the treatment of cramps and the myths.
There are a couple of myths that have been debunked about cramps.
So, No. 1, as far as causes, it falls into two categories pretty evenly, Ray. The one is just skeletal muscle overload or fatigue. The muscles tire out.
That’s why you see it a lot in two-way players that are going both ways, or you see it in the third or fourth quarters when these muscles are overloaded and fatigued.
And, it’s maddening to coaches ‘cause there’s whispering on the sidelines, “Hey your team’s out of shape that’s why you’re cramping so much.” So muscle fatigue is the No. 1 cause.
And the other is not truly dehydration, but we’re beginning to understand that a lot of it is from electrolyte loss or excessive sweat loss.
There are certain athletes, and we’ve talked about this a little before, who are called “salty sweaters.” They have a lot of salt — sodium — in their sweat and they sweat a lot.
The research in the last few years is really showing that sodium is the bigger electrolyte here, rather than a lot of talk about potassium and calcium from the past.
But, the recent studies have shown it’s mainly sodium, or salt, that’s lost. So, those are the two causes.
And, a lot of people wonder what do we do treatment-wise when we go out there. By the time kids are cramping, it’s hard for the prevention issues. So, generally what we do is we find out what muscle it’s in.
Most of the time, Ray, it’s in the calf muscle or hamstring — No. 1 and 2, [respectively] — but we will see quad cramps, we’ll see groin cramps and one that’s really hard to stretch out are abdominal cramps.
We try to stretch the muscles, massage the muscles and massage out the cramp. No. 2, we ice the affected muscles, which is important. No. 3, we actually try to contract the muscles on the opposite side.
So if it’s a hamstring, we try to get them to contract the quad and that’ll relax the hamstring.
And then, of course, you have to rehydrate them with sodium solutions, or with some of the rehydrating solutions that are out there. Those are the treatments.
In the area of the myths, this is where some of the research [comes into play]. It really is more the electrolytes than dehydration. We probably were looking at dehydration too much, and recent studies have said it isn’t just purely dehydration.
One of the myths is kids are always given fruit, like bananas, very frequently. One study showed it takes 30 minutes for anything that you ingest like bananas or fruit to actually have any affect on potassium or sodium.
That may not be bad for pregame meals and half time to use bananas and stuff, but it’s not going to help on the sidelines.
And No. 2: the issue of pickle juice — my favorite one. One study showed it takes about 20 minutes before there’s any benefit from pickle juice. Probably not unreasonable to try it, but we’d rather try the conventional rehydrating solutions first.
So, those are some of the issues about the darn cramps that are gonna be frustrating and difficult and painful for the athletes that you’ll be covering in the next few weeks.
Horner: No doubt about it. Alright, Joe, we’ll check you out on the sidelines for sure, and we’ll see you next week.
Dr. Congeni: It’s getting closer and closer isn’t it? Looking forward to seeing you, Ray.
Horner: It is. Alright. Dr. Joe Congeni from Sports Medicine Center at Children’s Hospital joining us, 1590 WAKR.