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How to Prevent Muscle Cramps and Strains

Treating Muscle Strains

You treat muscle strains by doing the exact opposite of what you would do for a cramp.

  • Do not stretch or massage the muscle; instead keep it at rest.
  • Elevate a strained arm or leg to prevent swelling.
  • Think cold: place cold wet cloths or a cold compress on the muscle. The appropriate technique for “icing” an injury is to wrap ice in a clean cloth and alternately apply the ice to the injury for 20 minutes, remove the ice for 20 minutes, and reapply (with fresh ice) for 20 minutes. Repeat this cycle for the first full day. You need to keep the muscle cold for the first 24 hours to prevent the muscle fiber from swelling, which could touch a nerve and cause even more pain.
  • After 24 hours, turn to warmth: use hot wet compresses to soothe the muscle. The warmth increases blood circulation and aids faster healing.
  • Ibuprofen can help ease the pain and reduce inflammation.
Before You Put the Band-Aid On

Cramps and strains require different treatment. So how can you tell the difference between the two? A cramp hurts less, and the pain is usually more localized. A strain causes severe pain and possible swelling.

Warning Signs of Other Conditions

A muscle cramp can be a result of too much exercise or a sudden wrong move, but it can also signal too much stress—or worse. If any cramp keeps coming back, it could be a warning sign of a serious disease. Check with your physician.

When your neck and shoulders cramp up, it's a good idea to stop what you are doing, roll your head from side-to-side, and shrug your shoulders. Relaxation exercises and meditation can also help this side effect of stress.

When your stomach cramps, it can signal gastric distress or even appendicitis. And as your mother used to warn you, stomach cramps in the water can be serious. Although you don't necessarily get a stomach cramp if you go swimming after a meal, if they do occur, you could lose control and drown.

Strains, too, can lead to more serious situations. A strained back can leave you incapacitated for days—or weeks. Sometimes simple strains are combined with broken bones. And a severe strain might signal internal bleeding and swelling. If a strain doesn't go away after you follow the basic first aid treatment, see a physician.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to First Aid Basics © 1996 by Stephen J. Rosenberg, M.D. and Karla Dougherty. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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