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Why Do Muscle Cramps Happen?
What is a muscle cramp, anyways?
You know the feeling…
You’re in the middle of a movement and all of a sudden your muscle locks up in a ball.
Or, you’re laying in bed at night and move ‘just so’ and your calf cramps intensely.
(There are muscle cramps that come from having a deeper issue – like a metabolic myopathy or a peripheral nerve disorder. Those are outside the realm of this conversation.)
You might be cramping because you have a sodium or magnesium imbalance – this can be especially true if your diet is not nutrient-rich, or if you are an athlete who expends a high volume of sweat during training without proper replenishment.
But salt or magnesium levels are not the instigator for many muscle cramps.
Lawrence Z. Stern and Charles Bernick write in their book, ‘Clinical Methods’, “Normal voluntary motor activity depends on the functional integrity of not only the motor unit (comprising a lower motor neuron and the muscle fibers it innervates) but also the descending and spinal excitatory and inhibitory circuits that influence it. Cramps may result from malfunction at various points in the pathway.”
Put another way, your body does not know how to fire the tissue in that position and what is akin to ‘neurological confusion’ occurs, causing the nervous system to send extra input to the area.
Put still another way, sometimes a new signal to your nervous system makes your nervous system act like a kindergarten student who is experiencing glitter for the first time during arts and crafts.
They’re all in and then some.
Why you cramp up
Cramps often happen because your nervous system doesn’t know how to use the tissue in whatever position you’ve put it in, and so it sends lots of signal to the tissue, and the cramp occurs.
Frequently, this happens when your muscle is already in its shortened position, and you then ask it to fire in that position.
You may not have ‘asked’ the foot to cramp while laying in bed, but it’s very likely that in the bed scenario, your foot was already pointed forward in plantarflexion, shortening the muscles on the bottom of your foot.
And then any movement thereafter caused you to flex your foot muscles and, boom, cramp city in the bottom of your foot.
Over the years, there have been certain movements and drills I teach my clients that tend to create a cramp in their tissue the first few times they do it.
And as I’ve continued my education into understanding the nervous system, tissues, and their role in mobility and movement, I’ve learned many more drills that induce cramps in the early days of performing them.
I have experienced plenty of my own cramps, and been front and center to many clients and training partners experiencing cramps as well.
And here’s what I’ve realized – most folks really do not understand cramps, or how to deal with them, at all.
And this is lack of understanding is holding you back from really moving well.
HERE ARE THREE THINGS ABOUT CRAMPS THAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
You cramp because your brain and body aren’t communicating well yet. And you can change that.
You cramp because this position is new for your body. And you can work with that.
You cramp because you actively avoid certain positions that hint at being cramp-inducing, and thus, revert your body to numbers one and two above.
How to improve your response to cramps
To become someone who does not experience cramps when you try to fire your tissues in a certain way, you must teach your nervous system how to better communicate with your tissues.
To do this, you must put yourself in an environment rich with neurological learning.
HERE ARE THREE THINGS YOU CAN DO TO IMPROVE YOUR NEUROLOGICAL LEARNING:
Explore how to use your tissues in their end ranges.
The first time you place your hip muscles into their shortest range and send neurological input to them in the form of firing the muscles in the hip, you will likely feel all too well just how new this experience is for your body (ie, welcome to cramp city).
But the five hundredth time? When you move into that position, and your body says, “oh, we know this position well, and we know just what to do here”…the cramp will not appear.
Put simply, you must explore the entire range of your joints and tissues. Not just the middle. Not just one position.
Teach your tissue how to manage a new position by going into that position and improving your capacity in that position.
Once your tissue can go into these new positions as you have been exploring the full range of your joints and tissues, then you must increase your ability to function in that position.
Having someone push your hips into a stretch does not serve to educate your nervous system. The nervous system itself needs to be able to get into, and work with, that position.
Can you keep the rest of your body more stable as you move around in this new position?
Can you expand the range that you have control over in this new position?
Can you increase the complexity and integrate two joints moving at the same time instead of allowing only one joint to function?
Understand that there isn’t any one input that will change tissue immediately.
To adapt and influence your tissue, you will need frequent, long duration, directional force inputs. Your posture doesn’t turn into “slouched, slumped adult” overnight.
Teach your anatomy the forces and signals you want it to respond to by showing it those forces and signals regularly.
And then remember, this process of teaching your body how to communicate better with its tissues takes time and repetition. You wouldn’t study a new language once a week for thirty minutes and think that you’re going to ever become fluent in the language…
Why would you only teach your body how to use your tissue in these new and expanded ways in a similar manner, spending time on it once per week for a short duration?
The holistic approach to handling cramps
This section could also be titled, “The ‘woo’ approach to handling cramps”, or “The self empowerment approach to handling cramps.”
Here’s what it definitely is – mental strengthening – something that is vitally important to develop if you are to handle muscle cramps, the ups and downs of life, and all the other stuff that makes up your life as a human.
I’m now going to share with you the thought process I use when I sense a muscle cramp coming on.
This process helps me not only handle the cramp with greater ease, it helps me stay focused on the work at hand.
When you experience a muscle cramp, your initial reaction is to get away from the cramp, to make it stop, to tense your body in the hopes of mitigating the cramp.
These things do not work.
When you squirm and fight the sensation of a cramp, you’re trying to hold on to control and in doign so you are…
Avoiding the chance to tap into the open-focus meditative qualities of the cramping experience.
Running from the very thing you need to improve.
Letting go of your power.
As Alan Watts says so well in this brief excerpt of one of his talks,
“Anytime you voluntarily let up control, cease to cling to yourself, you have an access to power. You’re wasting energy in self-defense, trying to manage things, trying to force things to conform to your will. The moment you stop doing that, that wasted energy is available.”
So the next time you find yourself wanting to hold on to control, fighting against the cramps instead of going with them, try this instead –
Notice the cramp coming on. Inhale slowly, deeply, as long as you can. Notice where you’re starting to tense up as the cramp arrives and see if you can let go of the tension. Exhale slowly, fully, as long as you can. Remind yourself, “it’s just a cramp…and that’s ok…everything is good here.” Remain connected to what’s happening. See if you can stay where you are while the cramp happens and experience that ‘hey, it’s really not so bad to sit through a cramp.’
I’ve been able to do this through very intense and more moderate cramps. My clients have been able to do it. And I’m certain you can too.
Remember, on the other side of cramp city is a body that is more knowledgeable about itself, tissue that functions better, and a confidence in your Self to know that you can go through discomfort and come out the other side just fine.
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