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.

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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

Cramps can affect any skeletal muscles, which connect to bone. A cramp can affect part of a muscle, an entire muscle, or different muscles in a group.

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:

Nocturnal leg cramps

These are leg cramps that occur during the night. Nocturnal leg cramps (NLC) are common, but experts do not fully understand why they occur. They most often affect the calves and can disrupt sleep, which can leave a person feeling tired.

There may be various causes and risk factors for NLC, including:

Contributing factors may also include:

Menstrual cramps

Doctors call pain due to periods dysmenorrhea, which affects more than half of all people who have periods. Some may experience mild to moderate cramping or a sense of heaviness in the pelvic area, while others experience severe cramping. In some individuals, the level of pain reduces as they age.

A person is at higher risk of period pain if they:

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:

Stomach cramps

Cramping in the abdomen is generally not serious. Common causes of abdominal pain 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:

Research has found that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including ibuprofen and naproxen, are effective against pain due to muscle cramps, such as lower back spasms. In severe cases, a person may experience greater relief by taking NSAIDs together with muscle relaxers.

Similarly, in mild to moderate cases, acetaminophen is effective.

A person with heart, liver, kidney, or gastrointestinal problems may consider avoiding NSAIDs, as these medications have potential side effects, including:

In rare cases, NSAIDs can lead to

Muscle relaxers

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.

These medications include carisoprodol and cyclobenzaprine.

Muscle relaxers work fast to relieve cramping muscles and usually last between 4 and 6 hours. One study found that 78.2% of people felt a reduction in acute lower back pain with a combination of a muscle relaxer called chlorzoxazone and ibuprofen.

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 may prescribe medication for leg cramps, including:

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.

OTC options

As with NLC and muscle cramps, OTC NSAIDs and acetaminophen often relieve menstrual pain. NSAIDs may be more effective at relieving menstrual pain than acetaminophen.

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.

Prescription options

In some cases, a doctor may prescribe hormonal birth control, which may reduce the severity of cramps by preventing ovulation.

This includes:

Common side effects of birth control pills may include:

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:

Generally, treatments for abdominal cramping depend on the cause. Many treatments exist for cramping due to IBS and may include diet and lifestyle changes along with various medications.

There are several methods a person may try to help prevent or alleviate cramps.

For muscle cramps and NLC, individuals could try:

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:

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.