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Muscle cramps are sudden painful spasms in a muscle or group of muscles.
Muscle cramps affect almost everyone from time to time. Painful spasms, often lasting only a few minutes, make the affected muscle become hard and tender. Muscle cramps may occur in any muscle in the body but they are most common in leg muscles. When abdominal muscles are affected, the condition is also known as a “stitch”.
Muscle cramps often develop during physical exercise, possibly as a result of reduction in the oxygen supply to the muscles or a build-up of chemical waste produced by muscles during exercise. Another possible cause is the loss of salt and water that occurs due to heavy sweating during hot weather or strenuous exercise. Muscle cramps may also develop if you have been sitting or lying in an awkward position for a long time. Sometimes, there is no obvious cause.
Cramps are not the only cause of attacks of muscle pain. If you develop recurrent muscle pain in your calves when walking, you should consult your doctor; the cause may be lower limb ischaemia, a disorder in which the arteries that supply blood to the leg muscles become narrowed.
The immediate self-help treatment for muscle cramps is to stretch and rub the affected area and to apply a heat pad. You should drink plenty of fluids and eat something salty. If you regularly have cramps at night, your doctor may prescribe a low dose of quinine, an antimalarial drug that effectively relieves the symptoms.
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