- Heat cramps are painful muscle spasms that occur due to exercise in hot and humid conditions.
- While heat cramps aren’t dangerous, they can be a sign of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
- To avoid heat cramps, drink lots of water and take it easy when exercising in high heat.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
The combination of hot temperatures and physical activity can lead to heat cramps in your muscles — particularly in the calves, thighs, and arms.
“Heat cramps are the least serious of the three, but still may be very painful and alarming,” says Rathna Nuti, MD, a primary care sports medicine physician in Dallas.
Here’s what you need to know to recognize and treat heat cramps before heat illness becomes more dangerous.
What are heat cramps?
A heat cramp feels a lot like a muscle cramp or charley horse, says Nuti.
The number one reason heat cramps occur — as well as heat exhaustion and heatstroke — is exercise in hot and humid conditions.
Hot weather, along with physical activity, sets the stage for heavy sweating. As people sweat, they lose fluids and electrolytes, which can cause muscle cramps.
How to tell the difference between heat exhaustion and heatstroke
Heat cramps can also be an early symptom of heat exhaustion, which is when your body starts to overheat. If you don’t cool yourself down right away, you could develop heat stroke, which can result in death without calling 911 and receiving immediate medical attention.
To know if your heat cramps are a sign of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, refer to the symptoms chart below:
Heat cramps can be a symptom of heat exhaustion.
However, as long as you heed the warning signs of heat cramps, your risk for heat stroke is low.
“Generally, heat cramps are self-limited and do not lead to severe heat-related emergencies such as heat stroke,” says Mohamad Moussa, MD, an emergency medicine specialist and associate professor at University of Toledo.
Heat cramps treatment
If you’re experiencing heat cramps, you should use the following strategies to prevent heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
- Stop exercise and get out of the heat. Physical exertion will lead to sweating, so hit pause on your workout or other physical activities. Don’t resume activity for several hours, says the CDC. “Rest in shade or an air-conditioned room,” says Nuti. This will help cool down your body.
- Replenish fluids and electrolytes. To treat heat cramps, you can consume a sports drink like Gatorade, says Moussa. This will help replace the fluids and electrolytes lost through heavy sweating, and help your muscles recover. Clear juice such as apple juice can also be a good choice, or any food that’s high in salt, says Nuti.
- Massage the cramped area. Slowly extend your arm, leg, or other cramped area. You can stretch and gently knead the muscles to relieve the cramp, says Nuti.
- Stay hydrated. Drinking lots of water is an important strategy to prevent further heat-related illness. When it’s hot outside, and particularly if you’re exercising, drink water every 15 minutes — even if you’re not thirsty. Avoid dehydrating beverages in the heat, like alcohol and coffee.
- Dress appropriately for the weather. If it’s hot out, leave off layers and opt for breathable fabrics. “Removing excess clothing during physical activity may help reduce the chance of getting heat cramps,” says Nuti.
Important: Seek medical help if treatments are not effective and heat cramps do not abate after an hour. Severe cramps may require intravenous fluids, says Moussa.
Heat cramps are a common yet painful muscle spasm that can happen if you’re exercising in hot or humid weather. Though they aren’t dangerous, make sure to also look out for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
To prevent and treat heat cramps, you should drink lots of water, replenish electrolytes, massage and stretch, and take it easy when exercising in high heat.
The Insidexpress is now on Telegram and Google News. Join us on Telegram and Google News, and stay updated.