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.

What are the signs and symptoms of heat cramps?

Heat cramps are the earliest symptoms of the spectrum of heat-related illness.

  • There is usually significant sweating with involuntary spasm of the large muscles in the body.
  • The muscles that cramp are usually those that have been stressed.
  • Runners and football players tend to get leg muscle cramps, but people who lift objects as part of their job can get cramps in the muscles of the arms or the core trunk muscles like the abdominal muscles (rectus abdominus).
  • Heat cramps usually begin after significant activity has occurred, but they also can occur hours after the activity has been completed.

Do individuals with heat cramps tend only to have muscle cramps? If an individual has other signs or symptoms such as lightheadedness, weakness, nausea and vomiting, and headache he or she may be suffering from heat exhaustion. Affected individuals who have stopped sweating or who develop a fever and become confused may be developing heat stroke, which is a true medical emergency.

When should an individual seek medical care for heat cramps?

Heat cramps can usually be treated when and where they occur. The affected individual should stop all activity and find a cool place to rest. The muscle cramps and spasms can be overcome by gently stretching the cramped muscle(s). Individuals can often replace their fluid loss by drinking a combination of water, sports drinks, or other electrolyte replacement solutions.

If the cramps cannot be controlled, the affected individual should seek medical care. There is no specific condition that differentiates heat cramps from heat exhaustion. The symptoms of these conditions form a spectrum from mild to moderate heat-related illness and symptoms can overlap. Severe heat cramps may actually be heat exhaustion. This is especially true if the person has nausea or vomiting and cannot replace the fluid loss, if they have significant fatigue and weakness, or of they have profuse sweating that does not stop when placed in a cooler environment.

Heat stroke is a true medical emergency and can be deadly. The body's ability to cool itself no longer functions, and as the temperature spikes, sometimes greater than 106 F (41 C), confusion and coma can occur. Emergency medical services should be activated (call 911) immediately if an individual is thought to have heat stroke. While waiting for help to arrive, the person should be moved to a cool place, clothes should be removed to help air circulate over the body, and cool water should be sprayed or sponged onto the body to attempt to cool it.

Prevention is the key to avoiding heat cramps, or other heat-related illness. A person who has had heat cramps is more prone to developing them again. Some professions are at higher risk for heat cramps, for example, construction workers and roofers are potentially exposed not only to the heat from the sun but also from the radiant heat from the hot shingles and liners on the roof. It may be helpful to acclimate to the hot environment over a period of days to allow the body and its muscles to adapt to its water and electrolyte needs.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/2/2016

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