Why do muscles lock up?

What happens when muscle cramping becomes debilitating?

The cramping began in Maggie Barton’s toes during a tennis playoff match six summers ago. It swept up her body like a torrent, overtaking her calves and her entire body, leaving in its wake excruciating pain and an inability to move her arms.

Though cramping can happen in any season, it’s especially prevalent during summer. Heat, humidity and an imbalance of electrolytes can bring down anyone — even and especially elite athletes like LeBron James, who was debilitated by cramps during the NBA finals. That’s because the elite often try to push through cramps; everyday athletes tend to stop once they feel cramps beginning.

Though James got scoffs for leaving the game, those who know about cramping also know he had no choice.

“You can pass judgment on the dramatics,” says Scott Galloway, athletic trainer at Texas Health Ben Hogan Sports Medicine. “But what you can’t pass judgment on is the level of fatigue and the actual injury.”

What causes it?

Full-body cramping is the way the body lets you know, “Hey, I can’t handle any more,” he says. “If your brain doesn’t tell you to stop, your body will. It’s one thing to get a cramp in the bed in your calf. You pull your toes back, and it stretches and goes away. But when an elite athlete starts experiencing cramping, your body is basically shutting down and you’re going into a form of exhaustion.”

Physically, continuing isn’t an option, says Cindy Trowbridge of the University of Texas at Arlington. During cramping, muscles tighten so much “you’re almost in rigor mortis without the death.” Moving your arms and legs, like trying to unfurl someone’s hand in rigor mortis, is all but impossible, she says.

“You can’t do anything to straighten them because the muscles are so powerful, and it’s painful,” says Trowbridge, associate professor of kinesiology and clinical education coordinator for the Athletic Training Education Program. “The pain is causing more cramping.”

She describes cramping as the nervous system being “on overdrive. In particular, the motor nerves that cause the muscle to contract are shortened. It’s like putting your foot on the accelerator and revving the car’s engine.”

Normally, the body would say, “How much contraction do I need?” and shuts off when it needs to shut off, she says.

“But this time, the muscles are contracted and are contracting so hard and so fast, it ends up in a positive feedback loop. Your body turns on more cramping.

“You’re asking more and more of your body, but it can’t shut off,” Trowbridge says. “You’re dehydrated. What that does is not only cause water loss but an electrolyte imbalance.”

In other words, you can be hydrated but your electrolytes can be off. Barton says she was diligent about drinking water that first summer she succumbed to cramps. A native of Colorado, she hadn’t experienced summers like those in Texas.

“I had been drinking a ton because everybody said to drink, drink, drink,” says Barton.

“But nobody mentioned electrolytes. Now I overdo with electrolytes because once you’ve cramped, your body tends to cramp earlier.”

She also leaves the tennis court the moment she starts cramping.

“We have ambulances come anywhere from five to 10 times during playoffs,” Barton says. “They need someone there to administer a quick IV. The first time, they gave it to me in an ambulance. The second , they they gave me an IV and I still went to the ER.”

Brian Hull, tennis professional at Lakes Tennis Academy in Frisco, has seen plenty of cramping, the most recent a 15-year-old player whose legs couldn’t stop spasming and who needed four IVs at the hospital. Tennis matches are usually played at the most grueling time of day, plus temperatures rise 10 degrees on tennis courts.

“Once you start cramping, it’s over,” says Hull, who was that boy’s age when he had his own cramping episode during tennis practice.

“You can’t continue. It’s like your body is out of control and you’re waiting for it to stop. You need someone to help you because you can’t walk on your own. They can last 30 minutes to hours. You really have to be careful.”

Who is prone?

Some people may have a predisposition to cramping, Trowbridge says, but there’s still no telling who will.

“What causes you to get them when someone next to you is losing the same amount of water and electrolytes, but isn’t getting them?” she says. “We’re different. We digest things differently; we sweat certain amounts.”

In addition, some people are salty sweaters, whereas others don’t sweat as much salt.

“When you’re a sweater,” Galloway says, “your body releases sodium. You have depletion of sodium, and your muscles need sodium to work.”

Other people may be deficient in calcium, so that mineral could be a trigger for them, he says. Just as vague as the cause is the solution. Some people swear by bananas, some by yellow mustard. Barton says people call her the “pickle juice girl” because she always has a bottle of the salty liquid in her bag.

“If anyone ever tells you they have the cure for cramps, they’re lying,” Trowbridge says. “Maybe for a few athletes they tested, something worked. I’m not saying it didn’t.

“We don’t know entirely what causes them for each individual, so there can’t be one magic bullet. Your magic bullet might not be my magic bullet.”

What can you do?

There is no surefire way to prevent cramping, says Cindy Trowbridge of the University of Texas at Arlington, but here are tips on reducing the chances of them occurring and how to handle them if they do.

Adequately hydrate. Drink water not just prior to, during and after the game, but days and weeks before. You know you’re doing well when your urine “is high volume and no darker than light lemonade,” she says.

Think outside the water jug. Brian Hull, tennis professional at Lakes Tennis Academy in Frisco, says to avoid carbonated drinks and caffeine. Pedialyte is his No. 1 preferred drink. Dallas tennis player Maggie Barton, who has had to get IVs twice for cramping, swears by electrolyte tablets she drinks in every glass of water before practice or an event.

Remember the basics. Even if you’re in the best of shape, says Scott Galloway of Texas Health Ben Hogan Sports Medicine, make sure you have enough rest and have eaten well-balanced meals.

If you feel cramping, stop playing. Drink water and electrolyte-heavy fluids.

If you’re debilitated, get professional help. Call an ambulance or go to the emergency room for an IV. This way, “you’re able to rehydrate faster,” Galloway says.


Causes and home remedies for toe cramps

Causes of toe cramps can include:

1. Tight or weak muscles

Share on PinterestA sedentary lifestyle or wearing ill-fitting shoes can lead to muscle tension and weakness.

Dozens of tiny muscles help the foot and toes move. Tightness in any of these muscles can cause muscle spasms and pain.

Sometimes the pain comes from another muscle. An example of this might be tension in the ankle or Achilles tendon that causes muscle spasms in the foot or toes.

Some common reasons for muscle tension or weakness include:

  • a new exercise routine
  • wearing ill-fitting shoes
  • a sedentary lifestyle
  • not stretching before exercise

2. Muscle injuries

Injuries to muscles and other tissues in the feet, toes, or calves can cause toe cramps or soreness.

Sprains, which are injuries to ligaments, can cause weakness and pain in the toes. Strains, which are injuries to muscles or tendons, can also cause pain.

Some common causes of muscle injuries include:

  • overexertion
  • a fall or blow to the foot or leg
  • overextending a muscle, tendon, or ligament

3. Poorly fitting shoes

High heels, shoes that are too tight or loose, and pointy-toed shoes can put pressure on the toes and surrounding areas.

This pressure can cause toe cramps, especially if the shoes force them into an awkward position. Shoes that do not fit properly can also cause muscle injuries.

4. Dehydration

Dehydration sometimes causes muscles to cramp or feel tense.

Dehydration is especially likely to cause toe cramps when the muscles are already injured or overexerted, or when tight shoes hurt the toes.

5. Electrolyte imbalances

Electrolyte imbalances can cause the muscles to cramp and spasm. Sometimes, dehydration causes an electrolyte imbalance.

In other cases, an underlying medical condition may be the culprit. Tetany, which is due to low levels of calcium, is an electrolyte imbalance that may cause muscle cramps.

6. Restless leg syndrome

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) can cause nighttime foot and leg cramps, odd sensations in the legs, and make it difficult for a person to fall asleep.

About a third of people over 50 years old experience RLS. Nighttime foot and leg cramps are also common when women are pregnant.

RLS is not well understood, and doctors are not sure what causes it.

7. Nerve damage

Neuropathy is when a person’s nerves are damaged. The condition causes pain, cramps, tingling, or numbness.

Uncontrolled diabetes is a common cause of nerve damage. People with diabetic neuropathy commonly experience pain, muscle spasms, numbness, and sores on the feet and toes.

Other conditions can also cause nerve damage, including Parkinson’s disease.

8. Poor blood flow

When there is not enough blood flow to the feet or toes, they may ache or spasm. Sitting for a long time, having diabetes, and crossing the legs for too long can slow blood flow to the toes and feet.

Peripheral artery disease causes arteries throughout the body to narrow, weakening blood flow. This condition may also cause toe cramps.

9. Arthritis

Arthritis is a group of diseases that cause pain and inflammation in the joints. For some people, the pain of arthritis feels like muscle cramps.

If a person is also experiencing joint pain, or if other joints hurt, such as those in the hands, it could be a sign of arthritis.

10. Dystonia

Dystonia is a symptom and not a disease. Dystonia is an ongoing involuntary contraction or spasm in a muscle or group of muscles.

Numerous medical conditions, such as Wilson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, brain injuries, or even a stroke can cause dystonia.

11. Organ failure

Problems with various organs can alter electrolyte levels, make it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients, and damage muscles and nerves.

Organ failure can cause pain, cramps, and spasms throughout the body. People at risk of kidney or liver failure should see a doctor if they are experience muscle cramps.

12. Rare infections

Very rarely, an infection can damage the muscles or harm the nervous system in a way that causes muscle cramps.

Tetanus, for example, can cause muscle spasms, though the spasms usually begin in the stomach or jaw.

What Causes Muscle Rigidity?

There are muscles all over your body. When you need to move a particular part of your body, your brain sends a nerve signal to the muscles located in that body part. This causes the muscles to tighten, or contract.

Muscles can contract a little bit or a lot, depending on the type of signal the brain sends. After contracting, the muscles relax until the next time you need to use them.

Muscle rigidity happens when a muscle or a group of muscles stays contracted or partly contracted for an extended period. The brain continues to send nerve signals telling the muscle to contract even when the muscle is no longer needed for movement.

This can sometimes last for several hours or days. The longer your muscle remains contracted, the more pain you’ll feel.

Muscle rigidity is often triggered by stress.

Stress can adversely affect your body’s nervous system — including your nerves — and how they function.

Your nervous system may respond to stress by putting additional pressure on the blood vessels, which results in reduced blood flow to the muscles. This can cause muscle tension and pain.

Certain medications, such as statins, can also cause muscle rigidity. Some medical conditions may also contribute to it. These include:

  • amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes nerve problems and a loss of control of voluntary muscles
  • chronic exertional compartment syndrome, which is an exercise-induced muscle and nerve condition that causes pain and swelling
  • chronic fatigue syndrome, which is a condition that causes extreme fatigue, sleep abnormalities, and muscle pain
  • claudication, which is a condition in which cramping occurs due to a lack of blood flow to the muscles, usually in the legs
  • dehydration, which is a condition that develops as a result of not drinking enough water
  • delayed-onset muscle soreness, which is a condition characterized by muscle pain and stiffness that develops hours or days after very strenuous exercise
  • dystonia, which is a condition that causes random and involuntary muscle contractions
  • fibromyalgia, which is a chronic disorder that can cause muscle soreness, pain, and rigidity
  • lupus, which is a chronic inflammatory disease that can cause pain and stiffness in the joints
  • Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which are tick-borne illnesses that can cause nerve damage
  • myofascial pain syndrome, which is a chronic disorder in which pressure on sensitive points in the muscles causes pain
  • Parkinson’s disease, which is a progressive neurological disease that affects movement
  • polymyalgia rheumatica, which is a chronic inflammatory disease that can cause muscle pain and stiffness, especially in the shoulders
  • repetitive strain injury, which is an injury to the muscles or nerves as a result of muscle overuse
  • rheumatoid arthritis, which is a chronic inflammatory disorder affecting the joints, especially those in the hands and feet
  • bacterial and viral infections
  • pinched nerves

You’ve probably experienced a muscle spasm or cramp — that sharp stabbing pain in a muscle that wakens you from a deep sleep or trips up your run.

A cramp is a sudden contraction or tightening of a muscle that usually lasts a few seconds to a few minutes. Cramps are caused by muscle spasms – involuntary contractions of one or more muscles. Muscle cramps and spasms are most often experienced in the leg. However, hand or foot spasms, as well as cramps in the feet, arms and abdomen are also common.

For immediate relief, stretch the muscle gently and massage it to help the muscle relax. Applying heat to the cramp when the spasm begins can also help.

“Muscle cramps and spasms are often a part of the body’s normal stress response,” says Rio Dickens-Celestin, MD, a primary care physician at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley. “As a physician, I try to figure out what is triggering the pain.”

“In instances where extra help is needed, a course of anti-inflammatory medications, acetaminophen or muscle relaxants can often be effective,” says Dr. Dickens-Celestin. “Identifying and addressing the underlying cause, however, is the best long-term approach.”

Why do muscles tighten up?

Experiencing muscle tightness after workout? Tight muscles are not only frustrating and painful, but can also limit movement. Worst of all, they can make it harder to stick to your exercise program. Knowing how to manage and prevent tight muscles will help keep you exercising. Muscles can tighten up for a number of reasons. Three times when muscle tightness can occur are during periods of prolonged inactivity, during exercise, and after exercise.

So, what causes muscle tightness? During periods of prolonged inactivity, for example, long days and weeks working at a desk, working at a desk, some muscles can get tight as a result of their restricted movement. When you are seated at a desk, your hips are in a bent, or flexed, position. This puts the muscles on the front of the hip (hip flexors) in a shortened position, and the muscles on the back of the hip (glutes ) in a lengthened position. In addition, as you sit at a desk reaching forward to work on a computer, your chest muscles (pectorals) will be in a shortened position, while your upper back muscles (rhomboids) will be in a lengthened position. Over time, this can result in muscle imbalances with the shortened muscles becoming “tight” and the lengthened muscles becoming weak. If you look around you, you’ll notice many people have developed poor posture with forward rounded shoulders and underdeveloped glutes . The key to preventing this tightness due to decreased range of motion is three-fold. It is important to maintain proper posture, even while seated. You should also specifically strengthen those small muscles which have become lengthened and weak. Lastly, you should make sure to stretch the tightened muscles, specifically the chest and hip flexors.

Another time when muscles tighten up is during exercise, for example, a muscle cramp. Cramps are unpleasant, often painful sensations caused by a variety of factors that include muscle fatigue, low sodium, or low potassium. Muscle cramps can also happen even when you’re not exercising. When muscles contract, the muscle fibers shorten, increasing tension in the muscle. When the contraction is completed, the muscle fibers lengthen and decrease tension. During a muscle cramp, however, the muscle fibers remain shortened and are unable to lengthen due to fatigue or improper hydration and nutrition. Forcibly stretching the muscle when it is in such a tight, contracted form can tear the muscle fibers and lead to injury. Allow the muscle spasm to relax and recover before attempting to stretch out the cramp. In order to prevent these from occurring in the future, make sure to be properly hydrated, properly fed, and not overly fatigued when exercising. If engaging in exercise bouts lasting longer than 60 minutes, consuming an electrolyte replenishing drink may help prevent muscle cramps.

Muscles can also tighten up following exercise. This is felt as muscle soreness. Delayed onset muscle soreness (or DOMS) can be felt as pain and stiffness in the muscles for 24 to 72 hours post-exercise. DOMS is most intense following exercises that focus on eccentric contractions where a weight is lowered or slowed. Examples of eccentric exercises include the downward phase of a bicep curl, or downhill running. The soreness and tightness felt is a result of small ruptures within the muscle. It can be prevented by gradually increasing the intensity of a new exercise program. While the soreness will usually disappear within 72 hours of onset, increased blood flow to the sore area, either by moderate intensity exercise or massage may help alleviate soreness. Stretching does not prevent soreness; however, it is still important to perform some static (holding) stretches after exercise to maintain or improve flexibility.

Proper exercise, stretching, and nutrition strategies can help prevent and correct what can be called muscle tightness. Proper posture, choice of exercises, and stretches will prevent tightness due to decreased range of motion. Proper exercise intensity, as well as pre, during, and post-exercise hydration and nutrition can help prevent muscle cramps. Appropriate exercise progression and static stretches after exercise will help prevent DOMS and maintain range of motion, respectively.

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