Heat Cramps

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Who is at risk for heat cramps?

While heat cramps tend to affect those who are active in a hot environment, it should be noted that heat cramps are one of the symptoms associated with heat exhaustion as part of the spectrum of heat-related illness. Those individuals who have impaired temperature control mechanisms are at higher risk for developing heat-related illness. The body's most effective way of cooling itself is through sweat, and then the sweat evaporates into the environment. Those at most risk for heat cramps include:

  • Infants and young children because they depend upon others to avoid the heat, dress them appropriately (avoid swaddling an infant since it prevents air movement over the skin to promote sweat evaporation) and provide enough fluid to drink
  • The elderly because they may have underlying medical conditions, including heart and lung disease, and they can easily become dehydrated
  • People who live by themselves or who cannot afford air conditioning are at higher risk for heat related illness
  • A variety of medications can impair the body's sweat and heat regulation. Examples of drugs include medication prescribed for psychiatric conditions, including antipsychotic medications and tranquilizers. Over-the-counter cold medications and antihistamines also impair the body's temperature control mechanism.
  • Alcohol consumption

What causes heat cramps?

While it was thought that dehydration and electrolyte imbalance was the cause of muscle cramping, there are alternative theories as to why muscles cramp when the body is exposed to heat.

Since heat cramps begin after significant exercise in a hot environment where the affected individual begins sweating profusely, the theory was that muscles were depleted of water and sodium affecting their ability to contract and relax. Some new research suggests that as the muscles tire from excess activity and work, the ability for the muscle to regulate its own contraction is lost and this is called altered neuromuscular control. Regardless of the cause, the diagnosis and treatment for heat cramps remain the same.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/2/2016

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