Muscle Cramps: No Joke for Seniors


By now most of us have seen Lebron James as he writhed in agony from muscle cramps during the NBA Finals. His dramatic reaction to a combination of overheating and vigorous exercise quickly sparked a meme, “Lebroning,” where fans make humorously painful (or painfully humorous?) expressions as they are carried away by friends.

But if you’re 60 or older, you might already know that muscle cramps are no joke. Athletes, and anyone else, for that matter, can suffer cramps at any age. But for some people, cramps become more frequent in the senior years. They can also become more painful. This is because our nerve pathways and muscles degenerate as we get older, making it harder to fight off, or tolerate, these painful spasms.

What Causes Cramps?
Researchers aren’t sure what causes cramps, although they have several theories. Skeletal muscle overload and fatigue frequently causes cramping during vigorous exercise. The neuromuscular systems embedded in the muscles, which control muscle contractions, are adversely affected, leading to painful contractions that make the muscles rock hard, squeezing the nerve endings to cause intense pain.

Cramps may also be caused – and this was probably what happened to LeBron when the air conditioning systems broke at the AT&T Center – by a decreased level of electrolytes due to intense sweating.

Understanding Cramps in Seniors
In seniors, cramps may occur for other reasons, even when a person isn’t exercising. Cramps may even wake you from a deep sleep.

Dr. Robert Miller, a neurologist at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, explained in an NPR article, “As we age… Muscles get more weak and small. And nerves undergo some decay, with the tissue becoming thin. And when that happens, the connections that the nerves make to the muscle become less secure.”

This can cause signals from the brain that are supposed to tell muscles to move to instead go haywire, resulting in cramping.

Preventing Cramping
As common as cramps are, there is very little conclusive research that reveals how to prevent them. Frequent stretching can help keep nerves and muscles strong to prevent cramping. Some doctors recommend yoga. Eating plenty of foods high in potassium, such as bananas, has also been shown to help. Finally, staying hydrated, especially as summer’s hot months approach, is important to prevent cramps and stay healthy.

If cramping is keeping you from enjoying your normal activities or getting a good night’s sleep, talk to your doctor right away to find the treatment that will work best for you.