Stretching or applying heat or ice can help relieve a muscular cramp. For more persistent cramps, such as menstrual cramps, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief may help.

Cramps are involuntary contractions of muscles that can come on suddenly. The best method to relieve a cramp may depend on the type and the underlying cause.

Cramps can affect muscle fibers, a single muscle, or an entire muscle group. During menstruation, a person may experience cramping pain in the abdomen, back, and legs.

Most muscle cramps stop by themselves before a person can take steps to treat them. However, if a cramp persists, people can usually relieve the discomfort at home.

This article offers tips for relieving cramps, including advice for specific types of cramps and when to contact a doctor about cramping muscles.

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Stretching and massaging an affected muscle or area is one of the easiest ways to relieve cramps at home.

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), people can either gently rub the cramping muscle or hold it in a stretched position until the discomfort recedes.

Another solution the AAOS offers is heat or cold therapy, depending on the type of cramp a person is experiencing.

For sore, tender muscles, they suggest applying cold packs. For tense, tight muscles, they recommend using heat.

According to the AAOS, cramps are most common in the following leg muscles:

  • quadriceps, at the front of the thigh
  • hamstrings, at the back of the thigh
  • gastrocnemius, at the back of the lower leg

Leg cramps can vary in intensity from a slight twitch to severe pain and can be sore for several minutes. People may experience repeated cramps after the initial pain subsides.

The AAOS recommends that people stop whatever activity triggers their leg cramps and gently stretch and massage the affected area. If the muscle stays tense, people can apply heat pads.

Nocturnal leg cramps

Leg cramps at night, which often occur in the calf muscles, affect around 37% of older adults in America.

People may be able to relieve this pain by stretching and massaging the calf. However, these cramps are often associated with underlying causes, such as depression or heart problems.

Exercise-associated muscle cramps happen during or immediately after strenuous exercise.

According to a 2019 article, drinking pickle juice may reduce the duration of a cramp. The article’s authors suggest that pickle juice’s acidity and salt content may stop cramps by affecting electrolyte levels.

However, the researchers stress that their results came from electrically invoked cramps in a laboratory, so more research is necessary.

Dysmenorrhea refers to abdominal pains that occur during menstruation. There are two types: primary and secondary.

Primary dysmenorrhea is cramping in the lower abdomen during menstruation with no other cause. Secondary dysmenorrhea occurs due to an underlying condition, such as endometriosis or fibroids.

Menstrual cramps can vary in severity. Some people may experience mild discomfort, while others can experience debilitating pain. Other symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, bloating, and more.

Treating menstrual cramps

Treatment options for menstrual cramps can include:

People with secondary dysmenorrhea may need additional medical tests to determine the cause. Once doctors know what is causing the problem, they can tailor a treatment plan for the individual.

Most people do not need to see a doctor for cramps, as they are usually short-lived. However, the AAOS recommends seeking medical help if a person has frequent, severe cramps that do not respond to simple stretches and massages or have no apparent cause.

Doctors can also help people with painful menstrual cramps determine whether there is an underlying medical cause, such as endometriosis. If needed, they may be able to prescribe stronger pain relief.

Below are the answers to some common questions about muscular and menstrual cramps.

What is the fastest way to stop cramps?

The fastest way to stop muscular cramps is to stop the activity that triggered the discomfort immediately, stretch the affected muscle, and massage the area.

OTC NSAIDs, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, may help with cramping due to menstruation. Alternatively, applying heat can help a person relieve discomfort.

Why do period cramps hurt so much?

Menstrual pain is often worse on the first day of a person’s period because prostaglandin levels in the uterus lining are high. These chemicals make the muscles and blood vessels in the uterus contract to shed the lining.

As a person’s period progresses, prostaglandin levels drop, reducing the severity of the cramps.

Muscle cramps can affect anyone at any time. They happen when a person’s muscles contract involuntarily and do not release. They are usually short-lived, but they can be very painful.

Menstrual cramps happen as the person’s uterus sheds its lining. They can vary in severity from mildly inconvenient to extremely painful.

People can treat both types of cramps with heat packs or hot water bottles. Gentle massage and stretching can help relieve muscular cramps, and OTC pain relief can reduce discomfort from menstrual cramping.