Muscle cramps happen when your muscles tense up and you can’t relax them. While painful, usually you can treat them yourself. Exercise, dehydration, and menstruation are common causes. One way to stop cramps is to stretch or massage your muscles and to eat enough of these key nutrients: potassium, sodium, calcium, and magnesium. They’re called electrolytes, and you can find them in the following foods.
Bananas: A Time-Tested Treatment
You probably know that bananas are a good source of potassium. But they’ll also give you magnesium and calcium. That’s three out of four nutrients you need to ease muscle cramps tucked under that yellow peel. No wonder bananas are a popular, quick choice for cramp relief.
Sweet Relief From Sweet Potatoes
Like bananas, sweet potatoes give you potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Sweet potatoes get the win because they have about six times as much calcium as bananas. And it’s not just sweet potatoes: Regular potatoes and even pumpkins are good sources of all three nutrients. Plus, potatoes and pumpkins naturally have a lot of water in them, so they can help keep you hydrated, too.
The Avocado: A Potassium Powerhouse
One creamy, green berry (yes, it’s really a berry!) has about 975 milligrams of potassium, twice as much as a sweet potato or banana. Potassium is important because it helps your muscles work and keeps your heart healthy. So swap out mayo on a sandwich with mashed avocado, or slice one onto your salad to help keep muscle cramps away. They have a lot of fat and calories, so keep that in mind.
Beans and Lentils
Legumes like beans and lentils are packed with magnesium. One cup of cooked lentils has about 71 milligrams of magnesium, and a cup of cooked black beans has almost double that with 120 milligrams. Plus, they’re high in fiber, and studies show that high-fiber foods can help ease menstrual cramps as well as help control your blood sugar and lower levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol.
Melons Are the Total Package
These fruits have it all: loads of potassium, a good amount of magnesium and calcium, a little sodium, and a lot of water. Sodium and water are key because as you exercise, your body flushes sodium out with your sweat. If you lose too much water, you’ll get dehydrated, and muscle cramps may happen. Eating a cup of cubed cantaloupe after a workout can help.
Watermelon for Hydration
They’re about 90% water, so when you need foods that hydrate, a cup of watermelon will do it. Since it’s a melon, it’s also high in potassium, but not quite as high as others.
It’s a natural source of electrolytes like calcium, potassium, and sodium. It’s good for hydration. And it’s packed with protein, which helps repair muscle tissue after workouts. All of the above can help protect against muscle cramps.
Some athletes swear by pickle juice as a fast way to stop a muscle cramp. They believe it’s effective because of the high water and sodium content. But that might not be the case. While pickle juice may help relieve muscle cramps quickly, it isn’t because you’re dehydrated or low on sodium. It is more likely because the pickle juice sets off a reaction in your nervous system that stops the cramp, according to recent research.
Dark, Leafy Greens
They’re rich in calcium and magnesium. So adding kale, spinach, or broccoli to your plate may help prevent muscle cramps. Eating leafy greens also may help with menstruation cramps, as studies show eating foods high in calcium can help relieve pain from periods.
One cup of refreshing OJ has plenty of water for hydration. It’s also a potassium star with nearly 500 milligrams per cup. Orange juice has 27 milligrams of calcium and magnesium. Choose a calcium-fortified brand for an extra boost.
Snack Smart With Nuts and Seeds
Like beans and lentils, nuts and seeds are a great source of magnesium. For example, 1 ounce of toasted sunflower seeds has about 37 milligrams of magnesium. And 1 ounce of roasted, salted almonds has double that. Many types of nuts and seeds have calcium and magnesium as well.
Salmon for Circulation
Sometimes muscle cramps are the result of poor blood flow. Eating oily fish like salmon can help improve it. Plus, a 3-ounce portion of cooked salmon has about 326 milligrams of potassium and 52 milligrams of sodium to help with muscle cramps. Not a salmon fan? You also could try trout or sardines.
Tap Into Tomatoes, Juice and All
Tomatoes are high in potassium and water content. So if you gulp down 1 cup of tomato juice, you’ll get about 15% of your daily value of potassium. You’ll also give your body hydration to prevent muscle cramps from starting.
Drink Water for Max Hydration
Generally, women need about 11.5 cups of water a day, and men 15.5 cups. But this doesn’t mean you should chug water. The water you get from other beverages, plus fruits and vegetables, counts, too. Before you reach for a sports drink, know this: You only need these sugary electrolyte beverages if you’re doing high-intensity exercise for an hour or more. For electrolytes without the sugar, drink coconut water instead.
Reviewed by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on 3/5/2018
This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information:
Muscle Cramps vs. Muscle Spasms
There are three types of muscles in the body. Cardiac muscle makes up the heart. Smooth muscle cells line the blood vessels, gastrointestinal tract, and certain organs. Skeletal muscles attach to the bones and are used for voluntarily movements of the body. Muscle spasms occur when a skeletal muscle contracts and does not relax. Muscle spasms are forceful and involuntary. A sustained muscle spasm is called a muscle cramp. Leg muscles, especially the quadriceps (thigh), hamstrings (back of thigh), and gastrocnemius (calves), are most likely to cramp, but any skeletal muscle in the body can cramp. A “charley horse” is another name for a muscle cramp.
What Causes Muscle Cramps?
There are many potential causes of muscle cramps including physical exertion in hot weather, overexertion, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and physical deconditioning. Many times muscle cramps are not cause for alarm; however, at other times muscle cramps may indicate a more serious underlying problem such as liver cirrhosis, atherosclerosis, ALS, thyroid disorders, or a problem or issue with the spine or spinal nerves. Certain medications and supplements may be associated with muscle cramps.
Signs and Symptoms of Muscle Cramps
Muscle cramps can range from being a mild nuisance to incapacitating and extremely painful. The cramped muscle may be visibly distorted or look knotted. Twitching may be evident. The area of a muscle cramp may be firm to the touch. Some muscle cramps last just a few seconds, while others can last 15 minutes or more.
Medications That Cause Muscle Cramps
High blood pressure medications, insulin, birth control pills, cholesterol-lowering medications, and certain types of asthma medications (beta-agonists) may cause muscle cramps. These medications cause cramps by a variety of mechanisms. They may interfere with electrolyte levels, contribute to the breakdown of muscle tissue, or interfere with blood flow. Report medication-related muscle cramps to your doctor.
Muscle Cramps at Night
Muscle cramps at night, especially in the calves, are very common and affect up to 60% of adults. Women are more likely to suffer from nocturnal leg cramps than men. They are also more common with age and contribute to insomnia. Muscle fatigue and nerve dysfunction are believed to be contribute to nocturnal leg cramps. Management of nocturnal leg cramps may include stretching, massage, and treatment of any underlying disorders that contribute to the condition.
Muscle Cramps during Pregnancy
Many pregnant women experience muscle cramps, especially in the legs and at night, during pregnancy. The levels of fluids and electrolytes in the body fluctuate during pregnancy, which may contribute to leg cramps. Increased pressure on pelvic nerves may also play a role.
Muscle Cramp Remedies and Treatment
The vast majority of leg cramps resolve on their own within a few minutes without treatment. As soon as a muscle cramp comes on, stop doing the activity that precipitated it. Stretching and massaging the area may help relieve muscle cramps. Apply heat to help relax a cramped muscle. A cold pack and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) help relieve pain. Always consult a doctor if muscle cramps are severe or if they recur frequently.
Medications to Treat Muscle Cramps
Pain medications, muscle relaxants, and anticonvulsants may be used to treat muscle cramps. It’s best to use lifestyle interventions like hydration, stretching, and the application of heat and cold to treat muscle cramps, but medication may be helpful when other strategies are ineffective.
Muscle Symptoms and Anxiety
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) may include symptoms like muscle aches, muscle tension, and twitching. Anxiety is often accompanied by other body symptoms such as fatigue, sweating, nausea, and shortness of breath.
Muscle Cramp Prevention
Strategies for reducing the risk of muscle cramps include varying exercise routines, staying well hydrated, and stretching. Warm up by jogging or walking at a brisk pace before stretching the calves, hamstrings, and quads. Maintaining good levels of electrolytes will help, too. Sodium and potassium are lost during exercise, especially in the heat and with excessive sweating. Sports drinks can help replenish sodium and potassium.