Here is something to do when you get a muscle cramp and a few considerations to help prevent calf cramps.
Muscles are generally organized into agonists and antagonists—for every muscle that does one thing, there’s a muscle that does the opposite. When the nervous system communicates to a muscle, telling it to contract, it also tells the opposite muscle to relax. For example, the major thing the calf muscles do is push your foot down, like you do when you press on the gas pedal of a car. So when these muscles are engaged, the opposite muscles that lift your foot up off the gas pedal are being told to relax.
In the moment:
A muscle cramp is an involuntary contraction of muscle fibers. So if your calf muscles are contracting against your will, one way to tell them to stop and relax is to engage the muscles that do the opposite.
For example: if you get a cramp in your calf, you can place the top of your foot against something like the footboard of your bed (such as if you had been busy trying to sleep) or you can even use your other foot, and pull your foot against it, the same motion as if you were lifting your foot off the gas pedal of a car. What you are doing is called resisted isometric contraction, which basically means you’re engaging the muscle but nothing’s moving.
Once the cramping subsides, then a slow, gentle stretch can be beneficial.
This same principle can be applied to any set of muscles. If the cramp is in your hamstrings, activate your quadriceps muscles by trying to straighten your leg against resistance, and if your quads are cramping, try to bend your knee against resistance to engage your hamstrings. If you often get cramps in a certain muscle and aren’t sure what’s the best way to inhibit it, this would be a good question for your health care provider.
One reason muscles can become prone to cramping is if they are often kept in a short position. As I stated earlier, the major function of the calf muscles is to push the foot down. So as you go about your day, try to be aware if you ever keep your feet in that position for a long time. If you get cramps at night, think about what your feet are doing while you sleep. Are they sticking up straight to the ceiling, or rolled out to the side, or pushed down flat by the blankets? This can have an impact on your leg muscles.
Regularly stretching your calves will also help prevent cramping because it will help increase blood circulation to the tissue. One of my favorite methods to stretch them is on the ledge of a sidewalk or stairway. The previous picture of a stretch using a towel to pull the foot up is another good one.
Finally, introduce more varied movement into the life of your feet. The exercises I discussed in “Happy Feet, Happy Body” are perfect for improving mobility and circulation in the calf muscles. Play with moving your foot in different directions, and if any movement feels strange, interesting, but not painful, try incorporating that movement into your day here and there.
There are many different causes of cramps and different means of prevention and treatment, so bear in mind that the methods I discuss here are not the whole answer.