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Heat Cramps: Is It A Serious Condition? Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors, Treatments And Prevention

Heat cramps are part of heat-related illness that occurs mainly in hot weather as a result of rigorous exercise or physical activity. When a person spends longer time in heat and humidity without proper rest, the muscles spasm involuntarily resulting in heat cramps.

Heat cramps are not a serious medical condition and do not require immediate medical attention. However, they are painful and may cause fatigue. A heat cramp mainly occurs in the major muscles such as thighs, abdomen, arms and hands. Heat cramps may also get confused with other health issues. Take a look at the details.

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Causes Of Heat Cramps

The main cause of heat cramps is the loss of electrolyte from the body due to excessive sweating. Sweating is a normal body process that occurs to everyone, but when a person does excessive physical activity or work, the secretion of sweat gets higher. This results in the excessive loss of electrolytes (electrolyte imbalance) leading to multiple health problems. [1]

Minerals like sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, chloride and phosphate are the electrolytes of the body. Sweating makes these electrolytes (especially sodium) come out of the body causing dehydration.

Some studies suggest that heat cramps are neuromuscular. When a person stretches his/her body for a longer time (during exercise or any physical activity) in hot environment, the muscles get stressed and lose their ability to contract more and cause heat cramps. [2]

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Why Are Children More Susceptible To Heat Cramps?

Children are more susceptible to heat cramps as they spend more time playing in the heat without proper rest. During the playtime, they often forget to drink water. This causes them to lose water from their body resulting in cramps of the legs, arms or other body parts.

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Symptoms Of Heat Cramps

The symptoms of heat cramps include:

  • Pain in the muscles (especially in the leg muscles)
  • Involuntary spasms of muscles
  • Sore muscles
  • Pale or moist skin
  • Heavy sweating
  • Nausea
  • Mild fever
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Who Are At Increased Risk of Heat Cramps?

  • Young children.
  • Athletes (especially runners or footballers). [3]
  • Old age people with some underlying conditions.
  • People under certain medications like antihistamines or psychiatric drugs as they impair the body's mechanism to control the temperature.
  • People who stay in countries or areas where the weather is often hot and humid.
  • Alcohol consumption or drug abuse.
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Complications of Heat Cramps

A person suffering from heat cramps should dehydrate themselves first.

  • Heat cramps for longer can causeHeat exhaustion (headache, rapid heart rate, vomiting)
  • Heatstroke (agitation, seizures and even death) [4]
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Diagnosis Of Heat Cramps

  • Patients history: A medical expert asks about the patient's working environment, exercising (if any), existing medical conditions, medications (if any), water consumption in a day, drinking habits and temperature of the area where he/she resides.
  • Urine test: Yellow colouration, darker and smelling urine indicates dehydration.
  • Blood pressure check: Low BP indicated heat cramps due to loss of electrolytes.
  • Blood test: To find out levels of sodium and potassium in the blood.
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Treatment Of Heat Cramps

  • Fluids: Drink enough fluid or sports drink during game or workouts to keep your body hydrated. [5]
  • Massage:Gently stretching the muscles improve the blood flow in the affected area
  • Ice bags: To cool down the body temperature and prevent excessive sweating.
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How To Prevent Heat Cramps?

  • Avoid doing rigorous workouts or physical activity in hot weather. If it is required, first adapt to the environment slowly and then increase your sessions.
  • Always keep sports drinks or water during physical activity. Consume them before and during the event to prevent dehydration.
  • Take breaks and cool yourself at intervals.
  • Avoid wearing heavy or dark-coloured clothes in hot weather. Wear light clothes while workout or sports activity.
  • Between the physical activity, massage your muscles firmly
  • Stretch your body
  • Avoid salty foods
  • Avoid alcohol or drug abuse
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Common FAQs

1. Are heat cramps life-threatening?

Heat cramps are the mildest form of heat-related disorders which can be corrected by preventing excessive sweating during hot weather. It can be life-threatening when left untreated for long.

2. What are the 3 types of heat illnesses?

The three types of heat-related illnesses are heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. A heat cramp is the first step or the mildest form of heat disorders. If left untreated, it may progress to its severe forms i.e. heat exhaustion and heat stroke.