Heat cramps usually occur in the muscles when a person sweats uncontrollably. If this happens when you’re working out or during other strenuous activities in extreme heat and suddenly feel poorly, you may have had some heat cramps already.
Muscle cramps of any kind differ from muscle twitches. A twitch is a slight movement. A cramp comes from a muscle that involuntarily and suddenly contracts. Both usually go away shortly, but the spasm may cause intense pain.
The important thing to remember here is that heat effects are cumulative. If high heat continues and you continue to be as active as you would be normally, sooner or later your internal air conditioner–sweating–will be overstressed.
Perspiring heavily quickly uses up the body’s natural supply of salt and moisture. Low salt and mineral levels in the muscles lead to the feeling of heat cramps, muscle spasms that usually occur in the arms or legs or the abdomen. The cramps can cause you to double up in pain.
Ignoring heat cramps brings a person one step closer to more serious trouble. If other symptoms begin to occur–such as paleness, faint or dizzy sensations, headache, nausea, or vomiting–you may be passing into heat exhaustion. A more serious condition, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke and possibly death.
Treatment for heat cramps
As with sunburn, prevention is the best defense against heat cramps. Since they appear when a person is dehydrated with salt and mineral problems, you should drink extra water or sports beverage on very hot days, especially if you spend too long in the hot sun or you have to overdo it several days in a row.
If you do get heat cramps, seek medical attention (1) if it is necessary, (2) if you have heart problems, or (3) if you are on a low-sodium diet. Otherwise:
- Stop what you are doing.
- Sit down quietly out of the sun and rest in a comfortable position while you work out the spasm and rehydrate your body.
- Slowly drink cool water, clear juice, or a sports beverage–not a drink with too much sugar, caffeine, or alcohol– at a rate of least a glass every half hour, even if you do not feel thirsty.
- Gently stretch the cramped muscle for 20 seconds, massage, and repeat if necessary so you can break the spasm cycle.
- If the cramps do not go away after an hour, get medical attention.
- Stay out of the sun and relax for a few hours after the cramps go away. Spend a little time in an air-conditioned space if it’s available.
- Consider calling it a day for strenuous activities in the heat. Exerting yourself after heat cramps can lead to heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and possibly even death.
The bottom line
Life-threatening heat stroke doesn’t just sneak up on you. You’ll get some warnings if you pay attention to what your body is trying to tell you before you get to that stage. And one of the more potent warnings is heat cramps.
>>>>> TO BE CONTINUED.
Part of a series about the summer threats of heat and sun overexposure, including heat rash, sunburn, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Access the other four parts of this series and previous articles on Sandy Dechert’s Women’s Health page.
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