You would think that with the progress that has occurred in exercise physiology and medicine over the past 20 years that the causes of muscle cramps would be known. Yet, despite this common problem facing athletes, bodybuilders, fitness devotees, and anyone who is physically active, the precise causes of muscle cramps remain both elusive and debatable. The theories about what causes muscle cramps are about as numerous as are the treatments, with new ones emerging regularly. At the most basic level, muscle cramps are sudden, painful and severe muscular contractions. Muscle cramps can occur anywhere, but the most common areas are the calves, thighs, and hands. The latter is known as "Writer's cramp," and I can attest to the severity of that type of cramp, having experienced it many times over the past 45 years. Another common area of muscle cramp is the hamstrings. When that happens, the pain is often called a "Charlie Horse," although the origin of that term remains obscure. Did Charlie's horse get a muscle cramp, or was it Charlie? And who the hell was Charlie anyway? Other areas that can cramp include the abdominals and feet. Runner's often get a type of cramp during a run that they call a "stitch."A stitch is usually caused by a cramp in the diaphragm, so is not a true muscle cramp. But the most available and rapid treatment is the same as for muscle cramps.
Cramps can last anywhere from just a few seconds to 15 minutes. Luckily, most cramps are of short duration. I often get hamstring cramps in the middle of the night, with an intensity so great that it wakes me up. The fact that such cramps only occur within hours after I trained my hamstrings provides a hint of the cause, which will be discussed later. However, muscle overuse can cause muscle cramps. This is related to overtraining. Engaging in an excessive volume of exercise, such as doing a large number of sets, reps, and exercises is a good way to promote painful muscle cramps after you train. But I grossly overtrained when I was about 20, doing up to 70 sets per muscle group, yet never experienced post-exercise muscle cramps. Why that was so was probably more related to my youth at the time. If you injure a muscle, you can also develop muscle cramps. Perhaps the most common probable cause of muscle cramps is dehydration, and that explains why muscle cramps are most common under hot ambient conditions that involve intense physical activity.
Indeed, dehydration and an imbalance of electrolytes or minerals that are involved in the relay of neural impulses to muscles were considered for years to be the number one cause of muscle cramps. However, emerging research, while not ruling out the effects of dehydration and mineral imbalance, also suggests another cause related to muscular fatigue. The minerals most associated with muscle cramps are calcium, magnesium, potassium . . .