Self-Help for Cramps, Sore or Injured Muscles

Note: The information contained in this article is for educational purposes and is not medical advice.

This information on self-help for cramps, sore or injured muscles has been divided up into several sections:

  1. Injuries (contusions, sprains, strains)
  2. Temporary muscle soreness or pain (usually from exercise or activity)
  3. Muscle spasms (also called cramps; in the calf they are sometimes called charlie horse)
  4. Recurrent or ongoing muscle soreness or spasms

1. Injuries

If you have had an injury to a muscle, tendon, or ligament, stop doing whatever caused you the pain, immediately. The sooner you initiate treatment, the faster your injury will heal. Avoid any significant activity until it is clear whether it is a minor or major injury.

If you have a mild injury, it may be treated with home care as described in a section below.

If thre is significant swelling and you have a moderate or severe injury, see a doctor. Especially with injuries to the wrists and ankles, it is wise to have x-rays taken to make sure no bones have been broken. If you have muscle problems or injuries due to a motor vehicle accident, see a physician, if possible within 72 hours of the accident. Always see a doctor if pain or swelling is extreme or if you have any concerns.

Contusions (bruising): A contusion is a bruise caused by a blow to your muscle, tendon, or ligament. The bruise is caused when blood pools around the injury and discolors your skin.

Strains (damage to muscle or tendon): A strain may be a simple stretch in a muscle or tendon, or it may be a partial or complete tear in the muscle-and-tendon combination. You can cause a strain or sprain by putting too much stress on a muscle or muscle group, or by twisting and pulling a tendon or ligament. Muscles are made to stretch, but if stretched too far, or if stretched while contracting, a strain may result.

Typically, strains hurt immediately and continue to hurt for hours and even days after the injury. A strained muscle may go into spasms or knot up instead of relaxing normally. Localized pain (during movement), swelling, and loss of mobility may occur. Swelling tends to come on rather slowly over a period of hours, but may reach rather large proportions.

Sprains (stretched or torn ligament): A sprain is a simple stretch or tear of the ligaments. You can cause a strain or sprain by putting too much stress on a muscle or muscle group, or by twisting and pulling a tendon or ligament. If too much force is applied to a ligament, such as in a fall, the ligaments can be stretched or torn. In a severe sprain, ligaments may be completely torn.

The signs of a sprain are rapid swelling, heat, and disability; often discoloration and limitation of function. When a ligament is torn, there is usually significant bleeding into the tissues around the joint, and swelling tends to come on quickly and be of impressive dimensions.

It is important to understand that the intensity of the symptoms and signs may not be accurate indicators of the difference between a sprain and a fracture. If in doubt, splint the affected area to stabilize it and seek medical help.

Home Care for Mild Injuries

Most mild contusions, strains, or sprains heal with "R.I.C.E." (rest, ice, compression, and elevation), followed by simple stretches to relieve pain and restore mobility. The RICE treatment reduces inflammation that comes with acute injury. Inflammation often causes redness, heat, swelling, and pain. The earlier the RICE treatment is started after an injury, the better it works.

Also helpful may be:

Preventing Injuries: Strains and sprains occur when muscles are too weak or too tired to carry out the physical stress placed on them. You can help prevent sprains and strains by stretching and limbering up before starting an activity. If your injury is due to athletics, cross train and choose activities that put very little stress on the sore body part. Make sure your equipment is supporting you properly. Typically it is easy to reinjure an area that has already been injured so be careful with future activities.

2. Self-Help For Temporary Muscle Soreness, Pain, or Stiffness:

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Temporary muscle aches may occur unexpectedly in situations like these:

To get out of pain:

Many episodes of muscle pain and stiffness go away by themselves within 2 to 3 days. If they persist longer than that, see a massage therapist or other health care professional. Also read the instructions below for recurrent or ongoing muscle soreness.

3. Self-Help For Spasms or Cramps

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Muscle spasms or cramps are any kind of undesired sustained involuntary muscle contraction. These can be short and sudden, causing severe intense pain (especially leg or foot cramps). They can also be longer lasting, as in a mild ache or discomfort that doesn't go away. I will especially talk about leg and foot cramps (sometimes called Charlie horse) since so many people ask about them.

To get out of pain:

For further help with recurrent spasms, read the instructions below for recurrent or ongoing muscle soreness.

Special instructions for foot and leg cramps:

Leg or foot cramps may be due to poor circulation, lack of salt, dehydration, abnormal mineral or hormone levels, pinched nerves (from spinal misalignment or muscle tension in the hips or legs), alcohol or tobacco use, decreased flow of blood to the legs, nutritional deficiency, environmental toxicity, or chemical sensitivity. Prescription or over-the counter medications, sugar, or caffeine can also cause or increase cramping.

As people age, leg cramps become common. This is related to reduced activity or muscle fatigue when the muscles don't get enough blood supply. Getting moderate regular activity during the day or stretching the muscles before bedtime generally reduces the likelihood of cramps during the night. Stretching the calf muscles of the leg before sleeping can also help.

If you have a cramp in your calf, contract the muscles in the front of the lower leg (the shin). To do this, straighten your leg and flex your foot (bend toes back towards knees) to contract the muscle in the front of the lower leg. This should relax the muscles in the back of the calf. If a cramp is very tight and painful, you may need to do this very slowly. Pressing against something can help contract the opposing muscle. For example, if you are flexing your foot to alleviate a calf spasm, place your other foot on top of the foot and press.

Additional suggestions: Sleep with legs bent, avoid high heels, eliminate sugar and caffeine (caffeine interferes with the body’s absorption of magnesium), soak feet/legs in warm/hot water, use a heating pad for ten minutes before bedtime, or place a pillow at the end of the bed to prop up your feet. For dehydration, drink more water, not alcohol or caffeine, because they will dehydrate the body even more.

If you have this problem, try increasing your consumption of calcium. Magnesium may be especially helpful. Other supplements that may lessen the severity (frequency or duration) of leg/foot cramps: daily use of Vitamin E, B-complex, Vitamin A, potassium, or folic acid. Homeopathic remedies and herbs especially for leg/foot cramps can be obtained at health food stores.

See a professional massage therapist for massage of the hips, legs, calves, and feet. If your muscles are tight in any of these places, they may be causing restriction of the nerves and blood vessels, triggering the spasms. Sometimes the muscles and tissues of the leg are so bound up, it takes professional help to resolve this type of problem. You will know in one or two sessions if massage is helping.

4. Self-Help For Recurrent or Chronic Muscle Soreness, Pain, or Stiffness

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Longer-term, chronic conditions are those that repeat or last over time. Some examples of chronic conditions include:

First get yourself out of pain by following the recommendations in the above sections. Then, take steps to decrease the ongoing tension which caused the pain to begin with. Typically, chronic pain or problems occur and recur because a person's muscles are already tight, and then an event causes an episode of pain to "suddenly" happen. The potential for the problem has actually been building up for a long time, and it just took one last straw for pain to occur. Thus, the best prevention is to reduce muscle tension in daily life on a regular basis.

Some suggestions for prevention:

By taking good care of your body on a regular basis, you may decrease both injuries and episodes of muscle discomfort.

For further information, search for books and materials on self-massage or muscle pain

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Jan's book: