Theories and Fallacies of Muscle Cramps Part II: Electrolyte Depletion Model of Muscle Cramps

Posted on 17 Jun 2009 19:58

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Part II (Theories and Fallacies of Muscle Cramps)

BY Ross Tucker, PhD and Jonathan Dugas, PhD
The Science of Sport

In part one of this series on muscle cramps we tried to set the scene by providing some history in this area. At times it might seem like we are a bit heavy on the historical side, but as we mentioned in one of our comments to Part I, understanding the historical record is crucial as often it helps us understand why we think what we do—-and this affects one's interpretation of the science. In this article we will focus on the prevailing premise that dehydration and electrolyte disturbances cause muscle cramps.

The first important thing about this area of research is that Professor Martin Schwellnus is hands down the one researcher who has consistently moved this area forward. As a sports physician he has treated many a runner with cramps, and his curiosity and what he was seeing in the medical tents lead him to challenge this paradigm that dehydration and electrolyte problems cause cramps. What he found was that this model was based on not one shred of scientific data, and instead relied heavily on anecdotal evidence. Since 1997 he has published some of the only evidence available that has even attempted to determine what actually is causing the cramps and who is prone to this condition. The first paper he published in 1997 proposed a novel hypothesis for muscle cramps, but we will address that in Part III of this series.

The lab vs. the field

In our series on dehydration we discussed how the lab is not always translatable to the field, and vice versa, but that each has its own important role. Field studies are often cross sectional in nature, and although important we cannot assign direct cause and effect from them. However it is observations and findings from field studies that often lead to the very precise and mechanistic lab studies that are important in advancing our knowledge.

However one major obstacle in this area (cramping), is that no one has yet created a laboratory protocol in which we can reproduce muscle cramps in a controlled manner. Being able to do this is a crucial step in eventually identifying what causes them because it will allow us to make specific interventions to test what the effect is on cramps. So although we are still in the infancy of this area of research, the field studies are a very important starting point and have so far yielded important findings.

One study published in 1990 showed that there was no association between potassium levels and cramps. In that study cyclists rode for up to five hours. Some of the subjects did cramp, but their potassium levels were not uniformly high or low, thus showing no association between that variable and the cramps. However beyond that study (and one more that was presented at a conference but apparently not published) there is little real data out there to support or refute this hypothesis that dehydration or electrolyte disturbances cause cramps.

Study 1: Two Oceans Ultra Marathon

In a 2004 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Professor Schwellnus and his colleagues examined runners before and after the Two Oceans 56 km marathon in Cape Town. They measured quite a few variables, but since we are discussing changes in electrolytes and hydration, we will talk about those results. Remember that many people, both scientist and personal trainer alike, will profess that cramps are caused by dehydration and/or some disturbance in the electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium, etc.) So the important finding from this 2004 study was that when the crampers were compared to the controls---who were matched for body mass and finishing time---the only differences were that the crampers had lower sodiums and higher magnesiums. The problem with this is that a lower sodium concentration suggests overhydration and not dehydration, and also if magnesium deficiency is meant to cause cramps then surely the crampers should have been lower here?

Crampers (N=21) Controls (N=22)
Sodium 139.8 ± 2.1 142.3 ± 2.1
Potassium 4.9 ± 0.6 4.7 ± 0.5
Magnesium 0.73 ± 0.1 0.67 ± 0.1
Osmolality 280 ± 6 284 ± 10

The relevance of this study is that if dehydration and electrolyte disturbances really play such a large role in cramps (as they are proposed to), then the crampers should have much higher electrolyte concentrations since they would be losing fluid and causing the concentrations to rise. Yet instead we see something entirely different, first that the crampers had lower sodium concentrations, and second that the crampers were not really different compared to the controls.

What is also noteworthy from this study was that the crampers had an average loss of body weight of 2.9%, compared to 3.6% for the non-cramping controls. In otherwords, the people who DID NOT cramp lost more weight than the people who did. It goes further than this, because Schwellnus et al were able to measure the change in plasma volume as well - a more direct measure for what is happening to fluids. Here, they found that the crampers actually gained a small amount of 0.2% during the race. The non-cramping control subjects LOST 0.7%. So the sum effect of this data is that it suggests very strongly that cramping is not associated with dehydration, or with lower serum electrolyte levels, which is what we have had drilled into us for many years!

The follow-up study from Iron Man - further evidence against serum electrolytes

The next year they published a study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, and instead of runners it was Ironman triathletes. According to what most of us hear day in and day out, it is these ultra-distance athletes who are exercising for 10+ hours at a time that must be most susceptible to dehydration and electrolyte deficiencies. After all, they are sweating for hours on end, and the numbers tell us that with so many liters of sweat lost then they must also be losing grams and grams of "essential electrolytes" such as sodium. Below you will see the basic data on these athletes, and the important finding here is that we see the crampers and controls were the same age and were similar in mass, had similar pre to post cahnges in mass, and also finished the Ironman in similar times:

Crampers (N = 11) Controls (N = 9)
Age (years) 33.5 ± 8.8 35.4 ± 8.1
Pre-race mass (kg) 79.1 ± 5.9 77.7 ± 6.4
Post race mass (kg) 76.3 ± 5.6 74.6 ± 6.5
Body mass loss (%) 3.4 ± 1.3 3.9 ± 2.0
Total race time (min) 660.8 ± 77.9 685.7 ± 48.5

So the two groups were essentially the same in that the crampers did not spend longer in the course or lose more weight (a crude measure of dehydration). Yet again the crampers and the controls looked remarkably similar on paper—-except as in the 2004 study the crampers again had a statistically significant lower sodium concentration, and, we will repeat this, that suggests they were more hydrated compared to the controls…yet they were cramping. Here are the data from the electrolytes in the two groups:

Crampers (N = 11) Controls (N = 9)
Sodium 140 ± 2 143 ± 3
Potassium 4.4 ± 0.06 4.2 ± 0.5
Magnesium 0.9 ± 0.2 0.8 ± 0.1

Recall that what is most often put forward as the cause of cramps is either dehydration or some electrolyte disturbance, but the data from these two studies do not support that hypothesis. Although these are field studies and we cannot assign a cause and effect relationship, this available evidence suggests that these (normal) levels of dehydration do not appear to cause cramps. If these levels of dehydration did cause cramps and were largely responsible for cramps, then what we should see is a very high incidence of cramps in all of the race finishers with the same physiological characteristics as these subjects——or in other words, the vast majority of the race finishers.

Rejecting the old models

In science when the available evidence does not support the hypothesis, we must change the model. Based on this available evidence we see clearly that dehydration and electrolyte levels are not associated with muscle cramping during or after exercise, and therefore we must adopt a different model to explain what is causing them. We cannot just ignore the data we have shown here and keep on telling people that it is dehydration and electrolytes when new evidence suggests otherwise.

So in Part III of this short series we will lay out the newest hypothesis that tries to explain the "why" and the "how" of muscle cramps. It is novel and, as you might have guessed already, has nothing to do with electrolytes and dehydration!


Brouns F et al., "Ammonia accumulation during highly intensive long-lasting cycling: individual observations." International Journal of Sports Medicine. 1990 May;11 Suppl 2:S78-84.

Schwellnus MP et al., "Aetiology of skeletal muscle 'cramps' during exercise: a novel hypothesis." Journal of Sports Sciences. 1997 Jun;15(3):277-85.

Schwellnus MP et al., "Serum electrolyte concentrations and hydration status are not associated with exercise associated muscle cramping (EAMC) in distance runners." British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2004 Aug;38(4):488-92.

Schwellnus MP. "Muscle cramping in the marathon : aetiology and risk factors." Sports Medicine. 2007;37(4-5):364-7

Sulzer NU et al., "Serum electrolytes in Ironman triathletes with exercise-associated muscle cramping." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2005 Jul;37(7):1081-5.

Used with persmission. All rights reseverved by the authors.

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