Ultimately, we become aware of most of what is going on within us mainly through the muscles. - Moshe Feldenkrais
Muscle Cramp - that tightening feeling in the belly of a muscle in places like your calves or your thighs that is accompanied by pain!!
Muscle cramps occur when a muscle or group of muscles involuntary contracts and will not release, or relax. There is no reason for the contraction to occur. The muscles do not have any work to do, yet they act as if they are being called to action.
Muscle cramps can occur at any time - whether we are awake or asleep - and for a variety of reasons. The type of muscle cramps that dancers suffer from are exercise associated muscle cramps. Science has yet to determine the exact cause of exercise associated muscle cramps, but there are two possible theories that are being studied.
One possible cause is overuse and fatigue. Muscles, like the rest of our body parts, grow tired after use and stop working correctly. For a muscle to work correctly, the body depends upon clear communication between the brain and the muscle. Messages are sent back and forth along a string of nerves called a neural pathway. The brain sends a message to the muscle for a contraction to occur and waits for the muscle to supply the brain with feedback to know whether or not an action has been accomplished or if another message must be sent to continue or increase the muscle contraction. An example of this situation would be the varying degrees in which a dancer can rise up into a relevé position. A dancer may choose to rise onto demi-pointe or full-pointe.
Each of these positions requires a different degree of contraction in the calf muscles. The brain depends upon muscular feedback to know if the position has been reached. When a muscle and a neural pathway are overused or tired, an imbalance occurs between the signals sent to the muscles and the feedback provided to the brain. This imbalance causes the brain to continue to signal the muscle to contract and causes a cramp and an involuntary contraction that will not release. When this cramp occurs, it is best to gently massage and stretch the muscle while keeping it warm until the contraction releases.
Another possible cause of exercise associated muscle cramps is dehydration and a loss of electrolytes. Electrolytes are minerals found in fluids in your body that keep the body functioning. Some examples of minerals that are relied upon for proper muscle contraction are sodium, calcium, and potassium. When we exercise, we lose water and some of these minerals through sweat. A way to eliminate dehydration and electrolyte loss as a cause of muscle cramps is to stay properly hydrated when dancing and to snack on healthy, nutritious food that will keep minerals at optimal levels.
Understanding what happens in your body when muscles cramp can help you to minimize their occurrences and, hopefully, recover from them before you find yourself in too much pain.
Miller, K. C., Stone, M. S., Huxel, K. C., & Edwards, J. E. (2010). Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention. Sports Health, 2(4), 279–283. doi:10.1177/1941738109357299
Schwellnus, M.P. (2009) Cause of exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC)--altered neuromuscular control, dehydration or electrolyte depletion? British Journal of Sports Medicine, 43(6), 401-408.