Athletes and those new to exercises can suffer from charley horses, shin splints and side stitches.
What are Charley Horses, Shin Splints, and Side Stitches?
When the muscles in the calf of the legs become suddenly tight, hard, and painful, it is a muscle cramp called a charley horse. Muscle spasms, or contractions of the muscles, cause cramps. There are many muscles in the body that are prone to cramps and spasms, such as the thigh, hands, abdomen, arms, foot, calf, and rib cage muscles. Cramps could be caused by not stretching enough, overexertion, poor circulation, exercising in too much heat, dehydration, fatigue in the muscles, malfunctioning or pinched nerves, or a deficiency in calcium, magnesium, or potassium. Some medications cause cramps as well.1 In the case of a charley horse, the “nighttime cramps are short-lived and relatively harmless”, although they are very painful. Elderly people and pregnant women are most likely to have them, but they can appear in all ages. Older people take medications that may cause the cramps, and in pregnancy, the unborn child is “sucking up calcium”.2 Shin splints, or an aching in the shins, are often caused by stress fractures, flat feet, overpronation, weakness in the core or hips, and overuse leading to swollen and irritated muscles. Runners commonly get shin splints when they increase workout intensity or change their running surface. Dancers may also get shin splints.3 This disorder is also called medial tibial stress syndrome, or MTSS. It is important to note that shin pain is not necessarily shin splints, which can be described by some as muscle or tissue inflammation or as “small tears in the muscle”.4 A side stitch is a stabbing pain that is felt on the lower ribcage on the side of the body. Sometimes it is called ETAP, or exercise related transient abdominal pain. An electrolyte imbalance or dehydration could contribute to side stitches.5
Prevention and Relief
To ease a muscle cramp, massage, icing, warming, stretching, or a bath of Epsom salts may provide relief. For hamstring cramps or charley horses, it might be useful to try “putting your weight on the affected leg and bending your knee slightly” or “lie down with your leg out straight and pull the top of your foot toward your head”.6 Some people may wish to try B12 supplements.7 Shin splints heal without treatment, unless there are fractures involved. Regular treatments for shin splints include rest, ice, anti-inflammatory medication, shoe inserts or orthotics, range-of-motion exercises, possibly physiotherapy, and perhaps “a neoprene sleeve to support and warm your leg”. Surgery is rarely required.8 There are some exercises that can be used for shin splints, such as tracing the alphabet with the toes while sitting or alternating regular walking with walking on the heels. Runners may want to wrap the affected area with an Ace bandage or even try biking or swimming (as cross-training) during the healing process. It is necessary for runners to have proper footwear and avoid hard surfaces and hills until the pain subsides.9 Staying hydrated is important when dealing with side stitches. It would also be helpful to strengthen the muscles in the core, warm up thoroughly, and breathe properly during exercise.10
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