Many people wonder what causes muscle cramps as well as what they can do to relieve the pain or prevent cramping episodes.
Since magnesium plays a role in muscle contractions, it has been hypothesized that magnesium deficiency can cause muscle cramps and that the mineral can be used as a remedy for cramps.
This article explores the link between magnesium and muscle cramps, the risk factors of muscle cramps, how to treat muscle cramps, and how to prevent muscle cramps.
Understanding magnesium and cramps
Magnesium is a vital mineral needed by the body. In fact, magnesium is needed for over 300 of your body’s biochemical processes. Magnesium’s function in the body ranges from regulating your heart’s rhythm and blood sugar levels to ensuring your muscles function properly.
Magnesium’s role in muscle function explains the link between the mineral and muscle cramps.
First, know that a muscle cramp is a sudden pain caused by an unexpected tightening/contraction of one or more muscles.
Magnesium plays a key role in muscle relaxation, thereby helping to prevent the sudden contractions of muscle fibers that cause muscle cramps.
Also read: Can Magnesium Cause Joint Pain? Explained.
Does magnesium deficiency cause muscle cramps?
Since magnesium plays a key role in muscle function, a deficiency of the mineral in the body can lead to disruptions in the process, potentially resulting in muscle cramps.
Science has offered different links between magnesium deficiency and muscle cramps. One of those links is preventing excessive calcium influx.
Magnesium and calcium ions compete for binding sites within cells in the body. This means that as the concentration of magnesium ions in a cell increases, that of calcium decreases. And vice versa.
Calcium is the mineral that triggers muscle contraction. So, high levels of intracellular calcium can cause sudden sustained contraction that leads to muscle cramping.
Conversely, as the amount of magnesium in cells increases, the amount of calcium drops, promoting muscle relaxation. And with relaxed muscles, there is almost zero chance of a sudden tightening that can cause cramping.
What the studies show
Studies have shown that there is a direct relationship between magnesium deficiency and muscle cramps and that magnesium therapy can help.
One study suggests that magnesium-deficiency-related muscle cramps are very common, and even advice that magnesium deficiency should always be included in every diagnosis of patients who complain of persistent or severe muscle pain.
A randomized clinical trial looking at the relationship between magnesium and cramps in pregnant women found that pregnant women complaining of muscle cramps had significantly lower serum magnesium levels than women without cramps.
Studies also suggest that magnesium treatment may help with muscle cramps.
One popular study found that raising serum magnesium concentrations may reduce the severity and frequency of muscle cramps.
Another study found that magnesium supplementation is effective and safe in treating night-time leg cramps. In the double-blind, placebo-controlled study, the episodes of muscle cramps (specifically nocturnal leg cramps) significantly decreased in people who received magnesium oxide supplementation compared to the placebo group.
However, while some studies report that magnesium can help treat leg cramps and muscle cramping generally, others do not find any statistically significant difference.
Does magnesium overdose cause muscle cramps?
Magnesium overdose (called hypermagnesemia) is not a common cause of skeletal muscle cramps. In fact, magnesium overdose is more likely to cause muscle weakness and fatigue rather than cramping.
Remember that magnesium is an antagonist of calcium, a mineral that gives the signal for muscle contraction.
Magnesium overdose leads to a high amount of intracellular magnesium. This results in a very low amount of intracellular calcium, promoting muscle relaxation. Thus, an excessive amount of magnesium, instead of causing muscle tightening, will cause muscle weakness and fatigue.
What are the risk factors for muscle cramps?
Muscle cramps can occur for various reasons. However, certain factors may contribute to the occurrence of muscle cramping. These risk factors for muscle cramps include:
Dehydration can contribute to muscle cramps through the disruption of electrolyte balance.
Good hydration is essential for maintaining the balance of electrolytes like magnesium, potassium, and calcium. Dehydration can lead to the loss of electrolytes, causing an imbalance that can affect the normal electrical signaling within muscle cells.
This leads to increased excitement of muscle fibers and a higher likelihood of cramps.
Overexerting your muscles (especially without proper conditioning) can increase the likelihood of cramping.
Overuse can deplete your muscles’ energy stores, cause a buildup of metabolic byproducts (like lactic acid), cause tiny tears in muscle fibers, or lead to impaired communication between nerves and muscles.
These situations can lead to uncoordinated muscle contractions, increasing the likelihood of cramping.
When you exercise vigorously, you lose fluid and electrolytes through sweating. This can result in electrolyte imbalance, which can increase the likelihood of muscle cramps.
Muscle overexertion is another explanation for exercise-associated muscle cramps. Intense exercise may also lead to overexertion of muscles, creating situations that increase susceptibility to cramping.
Poor blood circulation
Remember that blood carries oxygen and nutrients to tissues. So, poor blood flow to muscle tissues limits the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to these muscles. This impairs the functioning of the affected muscles, increasing the risk of muscle cramps.
As we become older adults, changes occur in our bodies that make us more prone to muscle cramps. For example, we experience a natural decline in muscle mass as we age, and reduced muscle mass increases the likelihood of muscle cramps.
Pregnant women are more likely to experience muscle cramps, particularly in the legs and feet. Changes in circulation, pressure on nerves, and hormonal changes during pregnancy may be responsible for pregnancy-associated leg cramps.
During pregnancy, changes occurring in the body include changes in blood circulation. This can affect blood flow to muscles, leading to cramps. Hormonal changes can also influence the excitability of muscles, leading to cramping.
Diuretics (water pills) help the body remove salt and water through urine. However, this action may lead to electrolyte imbalances, which makes the body more susceptible to muscle cramps.
Several medical conditions can increase the risk of muscle cramps. The common ones are:
Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)
This affects blood flow to the extremities, limiting the supply of nutrients to these areas and increasing the risk of cramps.
Diabetes can cause nerve damage (neuropathy). And when the damaged nerves are those that control muscle function, there’s abnormal signaling to the muscles, which can cause cramps. Diabetes can also affect blood flow to various parts of the body, including muscles, causing muscle cramps.
The kidney is the organ that regulates fluid and mineral concentration in the body. Kidney disease will disrupt this and create problems. For example, the kidney is responsible for excreting excess potassium from the body. When the kidney is impaired, potassium levels rise, and this can cause increased excitability in muscles that results in cramping.
Disorders like multiple sclerosis can affect nerve signals. And abnormal electrical signaling within muscle cells can potentially cause cramps.
The liver plays a key role in the regulation of electrolytes in the body. So, a diseased liver will affect these processes, causing an electrolyte imbalance that may lead to muscle cramps.
Staying in an awkward position for extended periods can contribute to muscle cramps (particularly for the legs and feet).
An awkward position can cause muscle imbalance—overusing certain muscle groups while underusing others. And overused muscles can trigger cramping.
A bad posture can also reduce blood flow to specific muscle groups, limiting the delivery of oxygen to these muscles and increasing the risk of cramping.
How to treat muscle cramps with magnesium
Since magnesium deficiency can cause muscle cramps, magnesium supplementation is gaining popularity as a remedy for muscle cramps.
However, note that magnesium supplements are not magic pills that will provide instant relief from the intense pains of muscle cramp episodes.
Magnesium supplements work by raising your magnesium levels if you are deficient in magnesium. And healthy magnesium levels may reduce both the frequency and severity of muscle cramps.
When muscle cramps are associated with magnesium deficiency, magnesium supplementation may help. Doses of 200-400 milligrams per day of bioavailable forms of magnesium (like magnesium glycinate) taken for a few weeks may help.
Some guidelines for using magnesium to treat muscle cramps include:
Consulting with a healthcare provider
We cannot stress this enough - do not take any medication without first discussing it with your healthcare provider. They will assess your overall health, determine whether magnesium deficiency is a contributing factor, and recommend an appropriate dosage.
Choosing the right form of magnesium
Magnesium supplements are not made equal. There are various forms of magnesium, and they differ in their absorption/ bioavailability.
The best forms of magnesium for supplementation are magnesium glycinate, magnesium citrate, magnesium lactate, and magnesium chloride, as the body absorbs them easily.
Do not go for the more easily accessible and affordable magnesium oxide supplements, as the body does not easily absorb it.
Following the recommended dosage
Follow the recommended dosage provided by the product’s instructions or your healthcare provider. This can range from 200-400 milligrams per day.
It is important that you do not take too much magnesium, as that can cause side effects like diarrhea.
Taking the supplements for several weeks
Studies showing that magnesium supplements may have some effect in treating muscle cramps use treatment periods of several weeks, usually 4-6 weeks. To increase your magnesium levels to help with muscle cramps, you may want to continue your magnesium intake for a few weeks.
Monitoring your magnesium levels regularly
When taking magnesium for muscle cramps, it is advisable to check your blood magnesium level at intervals during the therapy. This helps ensure you keep your magnesium level within the desired range and prevent excessive intake.
What are other treatments for muscle cramps?
While taking magnesium supplements may help, some other treatments that can help you treat muscle cramps are:
Stretching can improve muscle flexibility and reduce muscle tension, thereby relaxing your muscles to alleviate muscle cramps.
When cramping occurs, gently stretching the affected muscle can help it relax and reduce the pain considerably. It also works fine in preventing cramping. Stretching improves muscle flexibility.
This prevents cramping, as flexible muscles are less prone to stiffness and cramping.
Randomized controlled trials have shown that stretching before going to bed can prevent nocturnal cramping. In one such study, about 70% of people who stretched their calves and hamstrings before bed reported fewer and less painful leg cramps.
When stretching to relieve muscle cramps, consider doing the following:
- Maintain each stretch for about 15-30 seconds
- Stretch the muscle gently without forcing it
- Maintain steady breathing while stretching
Getting a massage
A gentle massage can help relax tense muscles and promote blood circulation to the cramped area.
Since sustained muscle contractions cause muscle cramps, a massage that helps the muscle relax can prevent cramping and be a soothing intervention to cramping when it occurs.
Not only do massages increase muscle flexibility, they also improve blood flow. This delivers oxygen and nutrients to muscle tissues and helps remove waste products, reducing muscle fatigue and cramping.
Taking a hot bath
Soaking yourself in warm water is another effective remedy for muscle cramps. A hot bath reduces muscle tension, helping to relax the stiff muscles that cause cramps.
A hot bath can also improve blood circulation, delivering nutrients to affected muscle tissues for proper functioning.
When using hot baths to treat muscle spasms, ensure the water is comfortable and not too hot. If possible, soak in the warm water for 15-20 minutes.
You may also consider adding Epsom salt to the bathwater. Epsom salt is magnesium sulfate, so it can provide magnesium that is absorbed through the skin.
Even though absorption of magnesium through the skin is limited, many people find relief from muscle cramps when they use Epsom salt baths.
When your muscles suddenly tighten and the pain courses through your body, pain relievers are one of the best remedies.
Over-the-counter pain relievers (like ibuprofen and acetaminophen) can help alleviate pain associated with muscle cramps.
Since self-medication shouldn’t be an option, it’s best to contact your healthcare provider. They may prescribe medications like muscle relaxants that can relax the stiff muscles and bring you relief.
How to prevent muscle cramps
Adopting certain healthy habits and lifestyle strategies can help you prevent muscle cramps. These include:
Using magnesium supplements
Magnesium supplements are made to help people meet their daily magnesium needs when they cannot do so through diet.
If your muscle cramps are caused by a magnesium deficiency, oral magnesium supplementation can raise your levels and promote muscle relaxation.
When looking for magnesium supplements, the Why Not Natural magnesium glycinate supplement ticks all the boxes. It’s made from the most bioavailable form of magnesium, so the mineral will be immediately available to your body.
Plus, it’s made using an ultra-clean formula, as it doesn’t contain fillers without health benefits.
Maintaining a balanced diet
One of the best ways to prevent muscle cramps is to eat food rich in nutrients like magnesium (leafy greens, nuts, seeds, etc.). This ensures a healthy serum magnesium level for proper muscle functioning.
Because calcium antagonizes magnesium, the daily intake of magnesium should be one-half to two-thirds that of calcium.
Adequate hydration helps maintain electrolyte balance, which is crucial to proper muscle functioning.
Thus, to prevent muscle cramps, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day. This is especially important during hot days or during and after engaging in some physical activities.
It’s also important to avoid excessive alcohol intake. Know that alcohol is a diuretic that increases urine production. So, it can cause dehydration, leading to electrolyte imbalance and making you prone to muscle cramps.
Taking electrolyte drinks
Prolonged physical activities can result in excessive loss of electrolytes. So, if you engage in prolonged physical activities, instead of drinking only water, consider taking sports drinks or electrolyte supplements.
This can replenish lost electrolytes quickly, helping to maintain the electrolyte balance needed for proper muscle functioning.
Muscle overuse causes muscle cramping. Therefore, to prevent muscle cramps, do not overexert your muscles.
When engaging in physical activities, avoid sudden intense exercises that can lead to muscle tightening. Instead, gradually increase the intensity and duration of exercises.
This allows your muscles to adapt progressively, reducing the likelihood of sudden muscle tightening.
It’s also important to warm up before engaging in strenuous physical activity. This prepares the muscles for the exertion that is to come, reducing the risk of cramps.
What are the symptoms of magnesium overdose in the body?
Magnesium overdose is a rare condition. However, the following are signs to look out for to know when your magnesium levels become too high.
One of the first symptoms of magnesium overdose is diarrhea, as magnesium has a laxative effect.
Know that magnesium acts as an osmotic agent, drawing water from the body’s tissues into the intestines. Excessive magnesium intake increases the influx of water to promote bowel movement.
Nausea and vomiting
Due to magnesium’s laxative effects on the gastrointestinal tract, an excessive amount of the mineral in the body can lead to a feeling of sickness and an inclination to vomit.
Stomach cramps often accompany the gastrointestinal disturbances that come with excessive magnesium intake.
The rapid movement of stool (diarrhea) that comes with magnesium overdose is not caused by only an increase in osmotic pressure in the intestines. An increase in bowel contraction also contributes.
Also, high levels of magnesium irritate the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. The irritation and muscular contraction may lead to abdominal discomfort.
Magnesium’s role in counteracting the effects of calcium makes it a natural muscle relaxant. So, excessive levels of the mineral can relax the muscles excessively, leading to muscle weakness and fatigue.
Low blood pressure
Magnesium’s role as a muscle relaxant means it has vasodilatory effects. This means it can relax blood vessels. These blood channels widen when they relax, allowing blood to flow more easily and reducing blood pressure.
Excess magnesium causes blood vessels to relax and widen excessively, causing low blood pressure.
Central nervous system depression
Magnesium can influence the central nervous system. For example, it activates an inhibitory neurotransmitter (GABA) that has a calming effect on the brain. This is one reason magnesium is used to reduce symptoms of depression.
However, an excess of magnesium can have a depressant effect on the central nervous system. This can lead to drowsiness, lethargy, and even coma.
What are the symptoms of magnesium deficiency?
Magnesium deficiency can cause a range of physical and mental symptoms. These include:
One of the first signs of magnesium deficiency is muscle cramps. As magnesium plays a crucial role in muscle function, low levels may lead to increased muscle excitability.
When magnesium levels drop very low, intercellular calcium can become so high that it triggers rhythmic, involuntary shaking of a body part. So, besides cramps, magnesium deficiency may contribute to tremors.
Fatigue and weakness
Magnesium is involved in energy production within cells. This is why people pop magnesium supplements for increased energy levels.
That said, magnesium’s role in energy production means that a deficiency can lead to a general lack of energy, fatigue, and weakness.
Though the exact mechanism is not fully understood, different studies have reported that a relationship exists between magnesium deficiency and tension-type headaches and migraines.
Arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
Magnesium is essential for proper heart function. For example, it prevents the buildup of calcium in the heart and arteries (coronary artery calcification), reducing the risk of heart problems like hypertension.
Magnesium’s role in protecting the heart means that a deficiency can lead to irregular heart rhythms and other cardiovascular issues.
Because of magnesium's role in various physiological processes, a deficiency may lead to a feeling of sickness.
Being a natural muscle relaxant, magnesium can help your body and mind relax. And this helps you sleep better. For this reason, a deficiency can lead to insomnia.
You may also like: Can Magnesium Cause Insomnia? (Based on Science).
Anxiety and depression
Ever wondered why magnesium is called “the original chill pill”? Magnesium plays a crucial role in the regulation of neurotransmitters to improve depressive symptoms.
For example, it activates calming receptors in the brain to make one relax and enhances the production of the feel-good hormone serotonin to improve the mood. For this reason, a deficiency of the mineral can result in anxiety and depression.
You may also like: What Supplements Help With Anxiety? (10 Evidence Based Picks).
What are the recommended levels of magnesium in the body?
According to the National Institute of Health, the daily recommended amount of magnesium needed by the body ranges from 30 mg to 420 mg, depending on the individual’s age and sex.
When taking magnesium for skeletal muscle cramps, you should stick to these recommended levels to ensure healthy serum magnesium status.
The daily recommended level for each individual is:
Birth to 6 months
7 to 12 months
1 to 3 years
4 to 8 years
9 to 13 years
14 to 18 years
360 mg (400 mg if pregnant)
19 to 30 years
310 mg (350 mg if pregnant)
31 years and above
320 mg (360 mg if pregnant)
What are the recommended sources of magnesium?
The recommended sources of magnesium are foods rich in magnesium, like roasted pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, dry roasted almonds, boiled spinach, dry roasted cashews, oil-roasted peanuts, cereal, and soymilk.
These foods have high milligrams of magnesium per serving. Know that your body can absorb only 30-40% of the magnesium you get in your diet. So, these magnesium-rich foods will go a long way in helping you meet your recommended daily magnesium intake.
The specific amount of magnesium in these foods is as follows:
Milligrams of magnesium per serving
Roasted pumpkin seeds
Dry roasted almonds
Dry roasted cashews
Oil roasted peanuts
Shredded wheat cereal
Plain or vanilla soymilk
Cooked black beans
Shelled cooked edamame
Takeaway: Fight muscle cramps with magnesium
Magnesium is essential for proper muscle function. Thus, having insufficient magnesium increases muscle excitability and the likelihood of muscle cramps. That is, if you have chronic persistent leg cramps, magnesium deficiency may be the culprit.
Thankfully, magnesium supplementation can raise blood magnesium levels. And this helps many people fight muscle cramps.
The Why Not Natural magnesium supplement is a 100% natural supplement that is free of fillers and all common allergens.
We have a 4-in-1 magnesium complex supplement made with some of the most bioavailable forms of magnesium. Thus, your body will easily absorb it to raise magnesium levels quickly.
It’s also one of the most potent supplements you’ll find. In addition to helping relieve muscle cramps, it also promotes quality sleep, improves heart health, improves fatigue symptoms, and supports bone health.Meet your magnesium requirement to reduce cramping episodes and improve your overall health. Order the 100% natural 4-in-1 magnesium complex supplement today!