Health / Expert Advice

What Are Heat Cramps and How Do I Treat Them?

The hot sun can lead to more than just sunburn and sweat marks.

Keeping a daily exercise routine is crucial to maintaining both a healthy body and mind. But just as fitness can be a positive influence in our lives, it can also be detrimental and cause harm to our bodies if we don’t take necessary precautions. It’s important to be aware of internal and external factors that can harm us when we engage in physical activity—in particular, heat waves and hot summer days that may cause heat cramps. As summer winds down and we try to fit in as many outdoor workouts as possible, we need to stay aware of the signs or symptoms of these pains.

This type of cramp is the body’s response to overheating, which eventually leads to painful muscle spasms. (Imagine an intense and long-lasting charley horse—ouch!) We talk with wellness and medical experts about the logistics of heat cramps, including causing factors, symptoms to look out for, immediate remedies, and long-term effects.

What exactly are heat cramps?

As mentioned above, heat cramps are the body’s physical response to overheating during physical activity. But why do our muscles spasm and ache when paired with high amounts of heat? According to registered nurse Rebecca Lee, founder of Remedies for Me, the cramps are actually a reaction to excess sweat. “Your body has a harder time cooling itself off if it’s really hot and humid outside. Your sweat cannot evaporate, which leads to more sweating. This excessive sweating causes your body to lose sodium, which makes you more susceptible to muscle cramps.” It’s also true that not all body parts and muscles are treated equally. Lee mentions that areas such as our arms, back, abs, and calves are more likely to develop heat cramps.

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What causes heat cramps?

Minus the temperature outside, there are several varying factors that could lead someone to develop heat cramps. Health and wellness expert Caleb Backe says, “These cramps are closely associated with an imbalance in fluid consumption and electrolyte intake.” They are more prevalent in those who are attempting to push themselves past a certain limit without taking precautions or necessary measures. Examples of these behaviors include long-distance biking, marathon running, and triathlons. Backe notes that at some point—without proper fuel—your body will give in. Surprisingly enough, it may happen hours later, not during the physical activity.

What are the symptoms of heat cramps?

The obvious sign is cramping in certain parts of your body. However, you may also notice your muscles starting to spasm in a large grouping versus one or two affected areas. Many of us will get cramps now and then during exercise. But, the noticeable difference with heat cramps is the pain. According to Backe, “You may also notice excessive sweating in that area due to the rise in temperature.”

What should I do?

Lee says, “Heat cramps should be dealt with right away because they are usually associated with heat exhaustion and heat stroke. If you think you have a heat cramp, given the symptoms above, stop exercising right away and try to cool off your body immediately.”

Along with finding a cool place to rest, Lee suggests replenishing your lost electrolytes and fluids with something like a sports drink or coconut water. For extra balance, try snacking on a banana to replace any lost potassium.

Once you’ve cooled down, Lee recommends performing some easy range-of-motion stretches while gently massaging the area of the cramp until it goes away. Aaptiv has stretching classes that you can do to increase your motion and mobility. View them in the app today.

When should I see a doctor?

There are several signs with heat cramps that mean it’s time to see a doctor. “These symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and headaches, or if the cramps do not subside,” Backe says. Heat cramps could be an initial step or warning sign of heat exhaustion, so it’s vital to get medical attention when needed. These symptoms can eventually lead to heat stroke, which could be fatal if left untreated.

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