Have you ever been plagued by cramps while working in the heat?
Interestingly, the cause of muscle cramps is still unknown.
Many people get muscle cramps, predominantly in their legs, while working or exercising for prolonged periods of time in the heat. If muscle cramps occur, you will be plagued with sharp, painful, spasming muscles that you can sometimes see ‘twitching.’
RISK FACTORS FOR HEAT CRAMPS
Unfortunately, it seems that there might be a genetic component to exercise-induced muscle cramping, and so people with a history of muscle cramps will be at risk for repeated incidences of heat cramps. Those with underlying diseases (e.g., diabetes or cirrhosis), and/or taking certain medications are also at increased risk for exercise-induced muscle cramps.
Often, muscle cramps will occur in workers who are overexerting themselves on a hot day, before they have fully acclimatized to the heat. Dehydration can exacerbate the occurrence of heat cramps, as it can lead to body water/electrolyte imbalances in the muscles. And “salty sweaters” might notice that they tend to get heat cramps more often than other people.
WHAT CAUSES HEAT CRAMPS?
The causes of heat cramps are still unknown, but the most predominant ideas are that heat cramps might result from:
Altered neuromuscular function caused by fatigue; i.e., a change to the connections (neurons) between your brain and muscles due to muscular fatigue & hotter muscle temperatures. This theory is the most likely based on the current research studies.
Dehydration & electrolyte imbalances caused by intense sweating (like in hot conditions), poor diet, and overexertion. There are many rebuttals to this theory.
© 2012 Cie Stroud
HOW TO GET RID OF HEAT CRAMPS (ONCE THEY OCCUR):
There are 2 main ways that people have found to get rid of heat cramps once they’ve occurred:
- Slow, static stretching of the muscle that’s affected by the cramps (like the picture above). This will help release tension & eventually cause the muscle cramps to go away.
- Drinking a small amount of pickle juice has been shown to alleviate muscle cramps faster than water or any electrolyte drinks. The reason for this is still unknown (but it’s not the high sodium content- could be the vinegar)- researchers are still trying to figure out why this works.
MYTH BUSTERS- WHAT WON’T WORK TO GET RID OF HEAT CRAMPS:
- Eating bananas- you’d need to eat 3 bananas and wait at least 30 min for them to affect your blood electrolyte levels.
Drinking electrolyte (sports) drinks- you’d need to drink a very large volume of these beverages to get enough electrolytes, which could then put you at risk for hyponatremia.
- Eating mustard- you’d need to eat 30 packets of mustard & wait at least 60 min for them to affect your blood electrolytes, & even then it doesn’t necessarily work.
SO CAN YOU PREVENT HEAT CRAMPS?
- Because the exact cause of heat cramps is unknown and the cause might vary across people, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to preventing heat cramps. However, here are a few things that have been shown to minimize the incidence of heat cramps:Acclimatize to the heat. Not sure what to do? Kenzen’s heat safety program can help.
- Calculate your sweat rate during a typical work day, and make sure you are drinking the right amount of fluids throughout the day to stay hydrated. You can follow these tips to stay hydrated at work.
- Do not overexert yourself. Use monitoring devices (like the Kenzen patch) to make sure that you are staying at a low- to moderate-work rate throughout the day and your core temperature isn’t getting too high. Especially when first starting to work in the heat, start slowly and work your way up to your full workload.
- Be aware of your personal and family history of exercise-associated muscle cramps, diseases, or medication usage. Knowing that you may be more susceptible to heat cramps can help you prepare should they occur: if it’s a really hot day and you’re working hard, have a partner nearby that can help you do static stretching should heat cramps occur, or carry a small amount of pickle juice with you.
Miller, Kevin C. “Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps.” Exertional Heat Illness. Springer, Cham, 2020. 117-136.
Lopez, RM. (2015) “Quick Questions in Heat-Related Illness and Hydration: Expert Advice in Sports Medicine.” Chapter 6. SLACK Incorporated. Thorofare, NJ.