By and large, if we take reasonably good care of ourselves, most of the so-called degenerative illnesses–heart disease, cancer, diabetes–usually wait until we’re in our sixties or so. So just accept the following as a given: Before age 60, most medical problems will involve your musculoskeletal systems. Which I guess is why the waiting rooms of chiropractors and osteopaths are so crowded. If to stay healthy we keep active, and by active, I mean anything from taking a regular walk to winning bowling trophies, we will inevitably experience some muscle aches and pains.
At WholeHealth Chicago, our experience is that supplements and a little rest and maybe some body therapies, like a good massage, will speed the healing process. Some wrenches and pulls hurt more than others, but you’ll recover: Your factory-installed healing systems will kick in, the muscles will heal up, and the pain will go away. Until the next time. But usually, it’s no big deal
What are Muscle Aches and Pains?
When muscles feel pain, soreness, or stiffness, it’s usually due to one of two reasons: overexertion or a cramp. Overdoing some physical activity–be it jogging too many miles, lifting too many boxes, or painting for too many hours-can bring on what doctors call delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The discomfort typically begins a day or two after the activity, and may last up to a week.
A cramp, on the other hand, comes on suddenly and unexpectedly. While you are exercising, lying down, or even sleeping, a muscle–most often in the thigh, calf, or foot–goes into spasm involuntarily. Unable to relax, it causes severe pain that usually last for a few minutes before subsiding.
- Sudden tightening of a muscle, usually during physical activity
- Soreness and stiffness in a muscle, often not developing until 24 to 48 hours later
- A sharp, painful contraction of a muscle
- A muscle that feels hard to the touch
- Visible twitching of a muscle beneath the skin
What Causes Muscle Aches and Pains?
Muscle pain triggered by overexertion is believed to be the result of microscopic tears in the muscle, which heal by themselves in a matter of days. The cause of cramps, however, remains something of a mystery. These painful spasms may be due to overexertion (causing a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles), overstretching the muscle (such as by wearing high heels), poor conditioning and flexibility (the result of prolonged inactivity), an imbalance of the minerals that control muscle contraction and relaxation (calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium), medication (such as diuretics), or perhaps dehydration.
Treatment and Prevention
Neither type of muscle pain is serious or damaging, and both can be prevented and treated with specific muscle exercises such as simple stretching, massage with pain-masking liniments. Conventional doctors usually prescribe a pain medication, such as acetaminophen or an NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory) such as aspirin or ibuprofen. In more severe muscle strains, like an incapacitating pulled back muscle, doctors usually prescribe a muscle relaxant, such as cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril) or methocarbamol (Skelex).
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition or are taking medication, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before you begin a supplement program.
How Supplements Can Help
Calcium and magnesium, taken on a steady basis, will help balance the minerals needed for proper muscle contraction. Of these two minerals, the magnesium is more specifically directed at an acute muscle spasm or strain. It helps synthesize proteins needed for muscle repair, and it strengthens nerve conduction and energy metabolism, both needed for healing. Malic acid, a naturally occurring organic acid, can also be very beneficial for a soft-tissue injury because it enhances the absorbency of the magnesium. (Other minerals needed for adequate muscle contraction are potassium and sodium, but most people get adequate amounts of them in their diet.)
In place of over-the-counter analgesics, try the herbs bromelain, which is a natural anti-inflammatory, and white willow bark, which is such an effective pain reliever that it’s been nicknamed “nature’s aspirin.” White willow bark should not be combined with aspirin or an aspirinlike medication, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as naprosyn, ibuprofen, etc.
The nutritional supplements creatine and glucosamine may be helpful in healing microscopic muscle and ligament tears.
Kava is a nonsedating tranquilizer that works as well as a daytime muscle relaxant. If muscle soreness interferes with sleep, try the herb valerian.
Drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after exercise.
To help muscles relax, warm up before exercising and stretch them afterward.
If muscle soreness is severe, apply an ice pack.
To ease a cramp in your calf, flex your foot, grab your toes and the ball of your foot, and gently pull toward your knee as you lie down. At the same time, massage your calf. Or stand up, putting your full weight on the affected leg, and bend the knee slightly.
To prevent calf cramps, stand about three feet from a wall, step one foot forward, and lean against the wall with your forearms. Keeping your back heel on the ground, hold the stretch for 15 to 20 seconds. Repeat with the other foot.
You’ll be less likely to get a calf cramp while sleeping if you sleep on your side. Also, don’t tuck in sheets and blankets too tightly, since this can bend the toes downward, triggering cramps. An electric blanket may help by keeping your leg muscles warm.
When to Call a Doctor
- If you experience tightness or cramping in a chest muscle-a possible sign of a heart attack.
- If you experience muscle spasms in the lower back or neck.
- If muscle pain causes numbness or radiates down an arm or leg.
- If muscle aches and pains start to occur frequently.
- If nighttime calf cramps are interfering with your sleep.
From David Edelberg, M.D.at WholeHealth Chicago: At WholeHealth Chicago, we suggest supplements for both general muscle soreness from overexertion as well as for the acute pain of muscle cramps. The supplements in our list can be taken in any combination, and–except for white willow bark–can also be used with over-the-counter pain relievers. All the dosages below presuppose you’re already taking a high-potency multivitamin as well as an antioxidant combination.
How to Take the Supplements
Although you get minerals from your daily high-potency multivitamin and mineral supplement, you can benefit from regularly taking extra amounts of calcium and magnesium. Both minerals contribute to the proper functioning of muscles. In addition, if you have an acute muscle cramp or you are prone to muscle spasms, take extra magnesium (400 mg twice a day).
For acute muscle soreness, both the bromelain and white willow bark have an anti-inflammatory effect and also relieve pain. In fact, you can substitute them for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) pain relievers such as aspirin or ibuprofen; many people find that the supplements tend to be gentler on the stomach than conventional pain relievers. (White willow mimics aspirin in the way it works, so don’t take it with aspirin, since the herb can amplify aspirin’s effects.)
Creatine, a compound manufactured by the liver, may also help ease muscle soreness. Originally developed as a muscle-building supplement, creatine has actually proved to be somewhat of a disappointment in that regard. There is evidence, however, that creatine can help repair tiny tears in muscle tissue following especially strenuous activity.
Glucosamine, a sugar produced in the body and found in small amounts in foods, can help heal ligaments and tendons, which are often damaged when a muscle is pulled.
Liniments containing eucalyptus oil, or even a few drops of the oil itself rubbed directly into the skin, can help stimulate blood flow. Because the eucalyptus creates a distinctive tingling sensation, you may even be distracted from the discomfort of the muscle pain itself.
Kava, a nonsedating tranquilizer, can act as a natural muscle relaxant. Just be careful not to use this herb with prescription drugs that affect the central nervous system (sedatives, antidepressants, psychiatric drugs, or tranquilizers). And finally if muscle pain is interfering with your sleep, take some valerian at bedtime; it’s a natural sleep aid.
Of special interest:
Homeopaths highly recommend the herb arnica, commercially available as a sublingual pellet or in a muscle cream. Important:
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.