Learn How to Prevent and Address Unexpected Muscle Cramps

Closeup view of a young woman with pain on hand on gray background.Closeup view of a young woman with pain on hand on gray background. Black and white photo with red dot.

Of all of the everyday aches and pains that people experience, few are as excruciating as intense and sudden muscle spasms. Individuals prone to this problem, which usually afflicts the feet, toes, legs and/or hands, know that when a cramp strikes, everything must stop until the pain is relieved. During nail services, holding a client’s hand or foot position for a long time or at a particular angle might trigger a cramp, but often they come on for seemingly no reason at all. Fortunately, with a little knowhow, you can prevent—or at least shorten the duration of—one of these uncomfortable episodes.

The Common Cramp

Cramps are caused by involuntary spasms, or contractions, of the muscles. When functioning normally, muscles work as a pair, with one muscle contracting as its counterpart relaxes. However, if the relaxation muscle falls down on the job, or if a contraction occurs very suddenly, the result is a spasm, felt as a sharp and intense pain centralized in the area of the contraction. The muscle may feel “knotted” and the affected area may become “frozen” or “locked,” as when the toes or fingers curl inward and can’t easily be straightened.

The most common sites are the arch of the foot, toes and calf muscles, but the hands, arms, abdomen and rib cage are also susceptible. “Cramps can affect any muscle under your control and can involve part or all of a muscle, or several muscles in a group,” says Carolyn Quist, DO, a Fort Worth, Texas-based doctor of osteopathic medicine.

An episode of cramping can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few days, off and on. And, according to Dr. Quist, no one is immune, although the groups at greatest risk for having an ongoing problem with muscle cramps are athletes, overweight people, the very young and the very old. The bottom line: “You could be of any age or activity level, and you could develop a muscle cramp doing just about anything,” Dr. Quist says.

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Understanding Spasms

While experts don’t know exactly what triggers uncomfortable cramping of the muscles, there are several possible contributors:

Dehydration: Caused by excessive sweating, smoking, diuretic drugs, alcohol abuse or simply failing to drink enough water, dehydration is an often-overlooked cause of cramping. “Imbalances in the levels of electrolytes in the blood [which can be caused by dehydration], such as sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium and phosphate, can lead to muscle cramps,” Dr. Quist adds.

Vitamin or Mineral Deficiency: It’s easy to forget that our bodies rely on a balance of vitamins and minerals to function properly. Of particular importance to muscles: calcium, magnesium, potassium and vitamins B6, D and E. Reduced Circulation Lack of blood flow to a muscle can result in a spastic reaction. Circulation can be compromised for many reasons: lack of movement, compression, obesity, pregnancy and disease, among others.

Nerve Damage: Damaged nerves cannot do their job, which is to send messages from the brain to other parts of the body, including muscles.

Injury: Muscle contractions are a natural response to localized injury, designed to protect the injured area.

Muscle Fatigue: Dancers, athletes, weekend warriors and anyone else who overtaxes their muscles may pay the price in foot, toe and calf cramps after the fact. As for hand cramps, according to William Kormos, MD, a primary physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, overuse is typically seen in people whose work requires intense or repetitive use of their hand muscles—including nail techs and massage therapists, as well as musicians, those who do a lot of handwriting (who may suffer from dystonia, also known as “writer’s cramp”), factory workers and cooks.

General Health Issues: Sometimes recurring muscle cramps are a symptom of a bigger health problem, such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, anemia and thyroid malfunction.

QUIZ: How to Avoid Muscle Cramps

Woman with calf feeling pain on white background.Woman with calf feeling pain on white background.


Preventing the Pain

It’s possible for nail techs to inadvertently raise the risk of muscle cramping in clients—but that also means there are things you can do proactively to avert a painful episode. “Consider positioning, temperature and physical contact,” advises Janet McCormick, MS, co-owner of NailCare Academy in Fort Myers, Florida.

When it comes to hand cramps especially, McCormick has noticed a pattern: “They tend to happen when clients are ‘helping me,’ meaning holding their hands in positions they felt would make my service easier,” she says. “It doesn’t, of course. ‘Helpful’ clients are the scourge of nail techs—and every nail tech knows what I mean!” It’s always a good idea to remind clients to relax their hands or feet when you can feel them trying to “help,” letting them know that it’s easier for you when they do. McCormick adds that it’s important for techs to note incidents of cramping on the client’s service record so they can be prepared next time.

Other common-sense cramp prevention practices come from understanding cramp “triggers,” so ask yourself:

• Do I know enough about this client’s health history? (For instance, a diabetic client with circulation issues might need to have her feet elevated during a manicure.)
• Am I checking to see whether this client is seated comfortably and can move around or stretch if needed?
• Have I offered the client water or another beverage to ensure she remains hydrated?
• Have I been holding her hand or foot in the same, or possibly awkward, position for a long time?
• Am I holding her hand or foot too tightly, potentially compressing a nerve or blocking blood flow?
• How is my massage? Have I asked about preferred level of pressure?
• Does the client appear to be curling her toes or seem to be having a hard time relaxing?

Easing the Agony

If, in spite of your best efforts, a cramp strikes your client while you’re in the middle of a nail service, there are still things you can do to soothe the spasm. McCormick, who has encountered the issue often—particularly in the arch of a client’s foot during pedicures—explains an especially effective technique: “I massage the foot while it’s still in the water and turn on the hot water a trickle to warm up the soak. That seems to help and allows the client to get through the service comfortably, though I massage a lot more than usual.” That said, gentleness is a must when cramps occur, adds McCormick. “Don’t grab the client’s hand or foot and start rubbing right away; that might cause more pain,” she explains. “Ask permission first.” Indeed, official advice from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons for relieving muscle cramps is to immediately stop activity and “gently stretch and massage the cramping muscle, holding it in a stretched position until the cramp stops.” Massage increases circulation to the muscle and encourages the release of lactic acid. Additionally, applying heat to tense or tight muscles is recommended, as this also increases circulation while relieving discomfort. Once the pain has passed, you can proceed with the service as planned.

What’s your best advice for avoiding muscle cramps in clients and what do you when you experience one?

-Linda Kossoff is a health and beauty writer based in Los Angeles.

[Photo courtesy of Getty Images]

This article was fist published in the February 2018 of NAILPRO

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