Heat Cramps: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments & First Aid

Heat cramps is a type of heat illness. They are muscle spasms that result from loss of large amount of salt and water through exercise. This cramps can be felt in the abdomen, arms and calves. It is not only caused by loss of large amount of salt and water, it can also be caused by inadequate consumption of fluids or electrolytes.

Although heat cramps can be quite painful, they usually do not result in permanent damage.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for heat cramps include:

  • Age (Infants, children and elderly)
  • Alcoholism
  • Working or living in a hot environment
  • Certain medications
  • Drug abuse

Read AlsoHeat stress: Symptoms and prevention

Who is at risk

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 risks for heat cramps are:

  • Infants and young children
  • The elderly
  • Individuals who live by themselves or who cannot afford air conditioning in hot environments
  • Those who consume alcohol
  • Individuals who work or exercise in a hot environment
  • Those taking certain prescription medications. Some medications can impair the body’s sweat and heat regulation (for example, psychiatric drugs, tranquilizers, OTC cold medications, and antihistamines).
  • People who abuse the drug Ecstasy or other synthetic drugs of abuse.

What Causes Heat Cramps

The exact cause of heat cramps is unknown, but it is most likely related to electrolyte deficiencies. Various essential minerals, such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, are known as electrolytes. They are important for many body functions, and an electrolyte imbalance can cause medical problems.

Sweat contains a large amount of sodium, and drinking fluids with inadequate sodium content after sweating profusely may result in a serious low-sodium condition called hyponatremia.

Heat Cramps Symptoms

Muscle spasms that are:

  • Painful
  • Involuntary
  • Brief
  • Intermittent
  • Usually self-limited (go away on their own)


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.

Heat Cramps First Aid

Do the following if you suspect any form of cramps:

  • Rest briefly and cool down
  • Drink clear juice or an electrolyte-containing sports drink
  • Practice gentle, range-of-motion stretching and gentle massage of the affected muscle group
  • Don’t resume strenuous activity for several hours or longer after heat cramps go away
  • Call your doctor if your cramps don’t go away within one hour or so and also of the following accompanies it:

– If you are unable to drink sufficient fluids because you have nausea or are vomiting, you may need IV rehydration with normal saline.

– It may accompany heat exhaustion.

– If you have more severe symptoms of heat illness, including dizziness, fatigue, vomiting, headache, fast heartbeat, shortness of breath, or a high temperature (greater than 104 degrees), get immediate medical care.

Read AlsoHeat exhaustion recovery time – How long does it take to recover from heat exhaustion?


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