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A Severe Case of Leg Cramps

In my football teams, anyone who went down with leg cramp while in the middle of a game or even just scrimmage was always bound to get the treatment. The ‘treatment,’ of course, would be a robust mixture of both scorn and ridicule from me and teammates.

Frequently, the cramp was self-induced; i.e. the player had probably been skipping training and the cramping was obviously due to plain fatigue. In professional clubs, such players would not even get on the pitch. If anything, they would even be fined and censured.

High school football particularly in schools like ours where interest in the game was extremely limited, however, did not enjoy such luxuries. Sometimes, it was just a matter of getting 11 players out on the pitch whatever their states of fitness. Thus, somebody who went down with cramp from missing training could expect to be treated; but not sympathy.

During my time as coach, the most common cramp that we all encountered was the leg cramp or what is called the ‘charley horse.’

Sometimes, the player’s instinctive reflex of stretching the leg out was sufficient to deal with the cramp. These brief cramps even allowed players to continue on with the game. However, it goes without saying that those who suffered cramping from lack of training got only what they deserved and tended to suffer more severe cramping. In most cases, these players were unable to continue and had to be substituted.

Most players, in due course, learn just by watching how to treat teammates suffering from cramp. The most common way used is to just allow the victim to sit down, stretch the cramped leg out and then to push the foot of the cramped leg down holding the toes towards the shin. Another way is to hold the entire leg down with the palms and to ask the victim to try to get up. There is also this other method of gently kicking at the heel of the cramped leg with the toes of the shoe.

The most common mistake by younger players is to use the aforementioned treatment methods on thigh cramp, which only aggravates the cramp even more. For the thigh cramp, it is always better to bend and flex the entire leg at the knee to relax the muscle. Massaging the muscle always helps; as does a warm compress, if available.

Under normal circumstances, muscles contract and lengthen alternately to allow blood to flow through them. When the muscles spasm or tighten during a cramp, blood is prevented from flowing through them. They stay contracted instead of being allowed to lengthen again; and this is what causes the severe pain during a cramp attack.

A cramp can occur as a consequence of many factors. Fatigue and excessive exercise with a particular muscle are the most common of these; although it goes without saying that the word ‘excessive’ is also relative to the state of the muscle as a consequence or lack of training.

Other factors include added weight, dehydration, the taking of certain medications and electrolyte imbalances. The last is a compound that conducts electricity through the body and imbalances can be in sodium, potassium, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium, chloride, hydrogen phosphate and hydrogen carbonate. Just nod your head as though you understood.

I had suffered from cramping before; but never while I was playing. Sometimes, while I slept at night after matches, I would just bolt up and awaken because of severe leg cramping. This type of cramping, I just discovered, is the most common and can occur to anybody, including extremely fit athletes. The spasms never lasted for long and I could always go back to sleep after a few minutes.

Among my players, there were some odd cases that were rather prone to cramping. There was one who graduated in 2006 who cramped ever so often in matches that whether or not he would do so became the subject of goodnatured make-believe wagers between his teammates. Let us say that this one did not win any awards for training attendance.

There was another one who graduated in 2011, however, who was extremely fit and trained diligently. Yet, almost like clockwork, he would cramp up around the 70th minute mark. I had gotten so used to it that, sometimes, I felt it necessary to warm somebody up to take his place around the 60th minute or so.

The most frightening case of cramping that I encountered, however, occurred only last year. The player was not even mine; a junior from a younger age bracket. My boys were warming up for the succeeding match when I was called to help out with the boy’s severe cramping. Not on one leg, mind; both legs!

I did not help that the boy kept writhing melodramatically. I do not think that the ice pack that was being applied before I arrived helped either. Some sports medicine sites prescribe ice packs, fair enough. That said, do our bodies not tense up instinctively at the touch of cold water?

Just when we managed to get the cramp to subside in one leg, the other would act up again. The cramping also kept changing from the forelegs to the thighs; so we kept chasing after it from one leg to the other. Finally, after forcing the boy to keep still and after what seemed like an eternity, we managed to get the cramping in both legs to subside. I was perspiring profusely afterwards.

The cause of the boy’s cramps was a no-brainer. Even after late afternoon scrimmage each day, his shirt would not just be damp with sweat. It would always be soaked! The boy, obviously, was being dehydrated by excessive sweating; and the condition was exacerbated by the heat and humidity of Metro Manila. We asked the boy to see his doctor, of course.

The boy continued to play. He never really played for me; so I really have no way of knowing if his condition was ever stabilized. What I do know is that his coach eventually learned to take him out at the slightest hint of a cramp. I can personally vouch for how bad it could get.

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