Avoiding & Treating Heat Cramps: A Guide for Summer/Fall Athletes

Michael G. Ciccotti, M.D. August 18th, 2016

The sports medicine physicians of Rothman Institute are helping local athletes avoid the discomforts associated with the preventable heat related issue of heat cramps.

The southeastern PA area has been warned: heat index values will again reach excessive levels during the afternoon and early evening hours as the current heat wave is sticking around for a few more days.

According to the National Weather Service, local residents are advised to take extra precautions and even to avoid being outside whenever possible. However, fall sport athletes do not always have that luxury. With football and soccer practices beginning, athletes will be at an increased risk for heat-related health risks that can pop up during periods of intense activity.

It’s important not only for athletes themselves, but also for their coaches and parents, to stay aware and informed about the risks associated with the excessive heat we’ve been experiencing. In this article, you’ll get helpful information on identifying and treating heat cramps.

Heat Cramps: What are They?

Heat cramps are a mild heat illness that, fortunately, can be easily treated. They are best described as intense muscle spasms and they usually develop after an athlete has been exercising for a significant period of time and sweating excessively.

Because sweating causes the body to lose both fluid and salt and because athletes engaging in intense activity during extreme heat are prone to sweat more than usual, heat cramps are a serious concern during preseason practices and games.

Identifying the Symptoms

Treating heat cramps begins with an ability to recognize them when they occur. When an athlete experiences this condition, he or she will often complain of the following:

  • Intense pain that is not associated with an otherwise pulled or strained muscle

  • Persistent muscle contractions

Usually the cramps will set in during exercise and will actually remain even after the individual has been resting for some time.

Extra Tip: Those who naturally tend to sweat more than others are at an increased risk for heat cramps. In addition, athletes with a higher concentration of salt in their sweat are more likely to suffer from this heat related condition.

Addressing Heat Cramps: Prevention, Treatment & Returning to Play

Prevention: Heat cramps can largely be avoided by adhering to a few important rules:

  • Athletes should be adequately conditioned when your sports season begins

  • Coaches should plan practices so that players can become gradually accustomed to strenuous activity in the heat and humidity

  • Parents of young athletes should ensure that their child’s diet is well balanced and that they are getting plenty of fluids

Treatment: If and when heat cramps do occur, follow the following four step process for properly treating heat cramps:

  1. Remove the athlete from the field of play and give him or her a sports drink, which will help replenish the lost fluid and sodium.

  2. The athlete should try to relax as much as possible and engage in light stretching.

  3. Massaging the cramped muscles can begin to loosen the cramp and relieve discomfort.

  4. The athlete should only return to activity after the cramp has completely subsided.

More Tips for Managing Heat Cramps in Athletes

  • Plan to have a certified athletic trainer on site at all practices and games. An ATC will know how to identify and properly treat heat cramps and other heat-related illnesses.

  • Insist that athletes warm up gradually so that their bodies can become accustomed to the heat and humidity without an initial shock.

  • Occasionally drinking sports drinks rather than plain water can help replenish sodium lost while sweating.

  • Encourage athletes to keep an eye on their pre and post practice weight. If post-activity weight is less than pre-activity weight, they are not drinking enough fluids during practice.

  • Training sessions during extreme heat should be planned so that players are given an opportunity for a drink break every 20 minutes.

  • If the heat index becomes extreme, consider canceling or postponing activity or moving all practices to an indoor location.

Here’s the Good News

Heat illnesses such as heat cramps can be usually be prevented and are fairly easy to treat successfully if and when they do occur. However, they can take a toll on an athlete’s body, result in poor performance and can lead to other, more dangerous conditions or injuries.

Being aware of and properly treating heat cramps is an important step toward keeping your players (or child) safe during their preseason activity in the midst of this intense heat wave.

For more information about heat illnesses, or to schedule an appointment with a sports medicine physician at Rothman Institute, contact us today at 1.800.321.9999.

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