A Doctor Explains What Causes Those Painful Muscle Cramps and How to Prevent Them

If you've ever been struck by muscle cramps mid workout, you know how excruciating they can be. But what causes cramps, exactly, and is there anything you can do to prevent them?

According to Bert Mandelbaum, MD, a sports medicine specialist and cochair of medical affairs at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, muscle cramps are commonly caused by general overuse, especially following strenuous exercise. "With muscles that have become sore due to exercise, the discomfort usually comes after the exercise is finished, hits a peak for a day or two, and then disappears," he told POPSUGAR. Drinking plenty of fluids helps flush out the lactic acid that can accumulate in your muscles and make soreness worse, so it's important to stay hydrated in the days and hours before and after a workout. "We often hear of the energy bars people are encouraged to eat pre-workout, but it's actually the hydration that's going to see you through and help you recover faster," Dr. Mandelbaum said.

You also need to listen to your body, though, and avoid overdoing it during your workouts, he explained. If you're beginning to feel fatigued during a cardio session or you can't keep proper form while lifting weights, heed those cues.

While exercise is the biggest culprit, there are other causes of cramps, Dr. Mandelbaum told POPSUGAR. Heat cramps are the mildest form of heat injury and can occur in the stomach, arms, or legs. They're caused by a depletion of salt and fluids from sweating during exercise. You can typically ease these cramps by taking a break, stretching the affected muscle, and replacing those electrolytes. But if not treated immediately, heat cramps may progress to heat exhaustion, a more serious illness marked by dizziness or fatigue, nausea, vomiting, a rapid heartbeat, and low blood pressure. If this happens, stop your workout, move to a shaded area, and use ice or wet towels to cool your body down, while replenishing salts and minerals with a sports drink or fortified water.

Finally, drinking too much alcohol can also result in dehydration, making your muscles feel sore the next day. "[Dehydration] restricts proper blood flow and depletes oxygen, all leading to muscle pain, injury, and cramping," Dr. Mandelbaum said. "If you know you'll be indulging in a cocktail or two one evening, be sure to add in plenty of water to the mix to help reduce the risk of dehydration."