Cramps are sudden, painful, involuntary spasms or contractions in one or more muscles. Anyone can experience cramps, which may cause mild to severe pain.
A person may experience cramps for various reasons, and the best medication may differ according to the cause and severity of the cramps.
This article discusses what cramps are, medication for cramps according to their type and cause, and other treatments.
A cramp is a sharp pain that occurs when a muscle suddenly contracts and does not relax. They have several potential causes and types. People commonly experience muscle cramps following exercise, in the legs at night, menstrual cramps, or stomach (or abdominal) cramps.
Muscle cramps range from mild tics to severe and debilitating pain. They may last from a few seconds to over 15 minutes and can occur once or multiple times before going away. A person may be able to see the muscle twitching beneath the skin during a cramp, and the muscle may feel hard to the touch.
Cramps most commonly affect the:
The reason for muscle cramps is not always clear, and there may not always be an obvious cause. Still, some causes include:
- muscle overuse or strain
- a lack of electrolytes, such as calcium, magnesium, or potassium
- some medications
- compressed nerves
- a lack of blood reaching the muscles
Nocturnal leg cramps
These are leg cramps that occur during the night. Nocturnal leg cramps (NLC) are
There may be various causes and risk factors for NLC, including:
- intense exercise
- certain medications
- disorders that leave a person less mobile
- disturbances in electrolytes and fluids
- endocrine disorders
- vascular disorders
Contributing factors may also
Doctors call pain due to periods dysmenorrhea, which affects
A person is at higher risk of period pain if they:
- have heavy or long lasting periods
- have high stress levels
- got their first period before the age of 11 years
Pain during periods may signify other health problems, which doctors call secondary dysmenorrhea. This pain typically lasts longer than typical menstrual cramps and can worsen with age. Causes of secondary dysmenorrhea include:
If the pain affects one specific area of the abdomen or is sudden and severe, the cause may be more serious. In some cases, it could require immediate medical attention. Potential causes include:
The best medication for cramps will depend on the cause or type, although some medications may address a range of cramps. However, a person should speak with a healthcare professional before taking any medications.
Medication for muscle cramps
A person does not typically need medication for muscle cramps, as they often resolve after stretching, massage, or applying heat or cold. If they remain, medications may help.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medication
If the cramps persist, OTC pain relief options may help reduce pain. These include:
Similarly, in mild to moderate cases, acetaminophen is effective.
- gastric effects:
- allergic reactions
In rare cases, NSAIDs can lead to
If a person experiences cramps from an injury or other temporary cause, muscle relaxers may help in the short term. They generally work by preventing the nerves from sending pain signals to the brain or causing a sedative effect by depressing the central nervous system.
Muscle relaxers work fast to relieve cramping muscles and usually last between 4 and 6 hours. One study found that
However, a person should not use muscle relaxers for longer than 2–3 weeks, as they can cause physical dependence. There are also potential side effects, which include:
Medication for nocturnal leg cramps
As with general muscle cramps, NSAIDs or acetaminophen may help alleviate pain from NLC.
In chronic cases, a doctor
- muscle relaxers such as carisoprodol and orphenadrine
- calcium channel blockers such as verapamil and diltiazem
- anticonvulsants such as gabapentin
While a doctor may prescribe these medications for leg cramps, researchers have not identified a standard treatment. The evidence for the effectiveness of these medications in treating NLC is inconclusive, so more research is necessary.
Medication for menstrual cramps
Medication for menstrual cramps may depend on the severity of the pain.
As with NLC and muscle cramps, OTC NSAIDs and acetaminophen often relieve menstrual pain. NSAIDs
Researchers found that 31% of girls and women felt relief from menstrual pain after taking NSAIDs. They also found that 2–3% of girls and women experienced side effects when taking NSAIDs to relieve menstrual pain.
Common side effects of birth control pills
Medication for stomach cramps
NSAIDs and some other pain relievers may irritate the gastrointestinal system, causing further pain.
An antispasmodic muscle relaxer, such as Buscopan, which contains the active ingredient hyoscine butylbromide, is an effective medication for abdominal cramps. It may also alleviate bladder pain and menstrual cramps.
A doctor may prescribe Buscopan or another medication that contains hyoscine butylbromide.
However, its side effects may include:
- blurred vision
- dry mouth
Generally, treatments for abdominal cramping depend on the cause. Many
For muscle cramps and NLC, individuals could try:
- frequent stretching
- deep tissue massage
- staying hydrated
- warming up muscles before exercise
- applying warmth to affected muscles
For menstrual cramps, an individual may:
- wrap a hot water bottle or heat pad in a towel and apply to the lower abdomen
- use a transcutaneous electronic nerve stimulation unit, a device that uses electrical impulses to ease pain
- have a warm bath
- exercise gently
- have a light massage
For abdominal cramps, a person could try:
- keeping hydrated
- eating smaller meals more regularly
- avoiding foods that cause gas
- eating plenty of high fiber foods
People should consider speaking with a healthcare professional if they are experiencing cramps frequently.
Cramps often arise due to a sudden contraction of a muscle that does not relax afterward. People commonly experience muscle cramps, nocturnal leg cramps, menstrual cramps, and abdominal cramps.
The best medication depends on the type of cramp and its underlying cause. A person should consult a doctor for further guidance before taking any medications for cramps.