Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Mysteries of Cramping

Today, people still do not understand the true reason behind why cramping happens – unless you have some sort of neuromuscular disorder or disease where cramping is a symptom. The misconception is that cramping occurs because muscles are depleted of water, minerals and electrolytes through sweating. This is false, in fact, cramping has nothing do with the muscles and everything to do with the nerves. This was theorized back in the 1990s by Martin Schwellnus. Schwellnus hypothesized that neural signals between the muscle and spine are distorted do to muscle fatigue. A distorted signal could cause the muscle contraction signal to keep firing, hence causing a cramp. Schwellnus came up with this hypothesis after it had been proven (2 decades ago) that there is no correlation between electrolyte levels and cramps. So why do we still think electrolytes are the answer to prevent cramping?

I believe the answer is simple – the 10 billion dollar sport drink industry. Gatorade, founded in the 1960s, still to this day has commercials about how their product stops cramps. Others are doing the same thing and this is false advertising. I would say hydrated muscles complete with electrolytes would perform better than the converse, but it does not stop the process of muscle fatigue.

Scientists are finally starting to catch on to Schwellnus’s theory. Two neuro scientists – Bean and MacKinnon, have created a supplement that has ion-channel activators that controls the nerves within the digestive track which simultaneously calms nerves throughout the body making it much harder for fatigued muscles to disrupt the nervous activity between muscles and the spine. This supplement should be available on the market soon.

Of course, I have been preaching something similar for years. I have Cramp Fasiculation Syndrome (CFS). I am an avid fitness enthusiast, but with CFS exercise is increasingly more difficult due to muscle pain and cramps. People would tell me to hydrate more and drink Gatorade, but I would explain that I am fully hydrated. They would argue and say “you can’t be hydrated if you are cramping”. I would say “Oh, yes, you can!”. I am living proof of this.

With CFS, my muscles are constantly in pain and are fatigued. Why? That is the 6 million dollar question, but I contribute this to two factors. First, people with CFS have a tough time resting and sleeping properly due to all the fasciculations occurring in their bodies. It feel like bugs are crawling under my skin. Secondly, I have constant small muscle fiber fasiculations (twitching), 24/7/365. Hence, my muscles never rest and this is a good reason why they are fatigued, even before I start to exercise. And this explains why they are more apt to cramp than a person without this type of peripheral nerve disorder.

Bean and MacKinnon are working on a drug that would help people with MS and ALS who have cramping symptoms. CFS has some of the same onset symptoms of MS and ALS, but with one major difference. CFS symptoms are due to an imbalance at the nerve endings, MS and ALS symptoms are triggered from the brain. MS and ALS causes muscle atrophy in most patients. Smaller and weaker muscles fatigue much easier than normal ones. Hence, it is easy for someone to conclude muscles for MS and ALS patients can cramp easy.

People with restless leg syndrome get cramps because their leg muscles are fatigued, not because they need Gatorade. This is so intuitive to people with muscular disorders that cause cramping. Obviously, the first thing I did was drink all the time to eliminate cramping and it did not work. It did absolutely nothing to help me. I even experimented further: I found that I could ride 30-40 hard miles on my bike and the chances of my cramping was about the same whether I started on an empty stomach and 16 ounces of water, or if I ate a full meal and had 32 ounces of Gatorade. I ate and drank nothing during the ride to control the experiment. In fact, my performance was not much different in either case. With my legs, cramping is likely to kick in after 3 hours of constant exercise and that threshold could go down depending on the intensity of the workout. It could happen within 30 minutes if I am really pushing myself to the limit in say a time trial activity.

Bean and MacKinnon’s company is Flex-Pharma: http://www.flex-pharma.com/. I have written them and will see what they say about their supplements and drugs for treating CFS.

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