What Is a Muscle Cramp?

Muscle cramps are involuntary muscle contractions that can cause pain, stiffness, and limited mobility. They can affect any muscle group.

Muscle cramps can be caused by a variety of factors, including overexertion, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, poor circulation, muscle fatigue, injury, poor nutrition, anxiety, underlying health issues or genetics. They may also be more common in older horses or horses with certain medical conditions.

Symptoms of muscle cramps may include:

  • Sudden onset of pain or discomfort
  • Stiffness or limited mobility
  • Twitching or spasms in the affected muscle group
  • Refusal to move or difficulty standing
  • Sweating or rapid breathing
  • Elevated heart rate or respiratory rate

*If your horse appears to be suffering from muscle cramps PLEASE contact your Veterinarian ASAP to identify the cause of the cramps and develop an appropriate treatment plan.

Common types of muscle cramps include:

  1. Myogenic Cramps: These cramps are caused by abnormal muscle contractions due to changes within the muscle fibers themselves, often due to overuse, muscle fatigue, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, an underlying health condition (ex. EMS) or genetic predisposition (ex. HYPP or PSSM).
  2. Neurogenic Cramps: These are cramps that are caused by abnormalities or dysfunction in the nervous system, which can result in involuntary muscle contractions. Common causes include illnesses such as EPM, Vitamin E and selenium deficiency, toxicity, peripheral nerve injury, trauma or nerve compression.
  3. Heat Cramps: These are cramps that occur as a result of exposure to excessive heat excessive, humidity, and physical exertion, resulting in dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances. Heat cramps can progress to more serious heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
  4. Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps: These are cramps that occur during or after intense exercise, often due to muscle fatigue or electrolyte imbalances (commonly referred to as tying-up” syndrome or exertional rhabdomyolysis).
  5. Rest Cramps: These are cramps that occur during periods of rest or inactivity, often due to poor circulation, muscle fatigue, electrolyte imbalances, or underlying medical conditions. Rest cramps may present as a sudden onset of muscle stiffness or soreness. The affected muscle may feel hard or knotted, and the horse may appear stiff, uncomfortable or reluctant to move.

The treatment for muscle cramps may differ depending on the underlying cause. For example, treating myogenic muscle cramps may involve rest, massage, stretching, and/or changes to the horse’s diet or exercise routine, while treating neurogenic muscle cramps may involve addressing nerve damage, illness, nutritional imbalances, or other neurological issues.

If your horse is suffering from muscle cramps, there are several things you can do to help alleviate the symptoms and prevent future occurrences.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Consult with a Veterinarian: Muscle cramps can be caused by a variety of factors, including underlying health issues. Your Vet can help diagnose the cause of the cramping and recommend an appropriate course of treatment.
  2. Rest: Rest is important for allowing the muscles to recover from cramping. Depending on the severity of the cramping, your Vet may recommend that your horse take a break from work or exercise.
  3. Modify Exercise: Careful conditioning, appropriate muscling for your horse’s activities and adjusting exercise to current ambient conditions will help reduce your horse’s potential for muscle cramps.
  4. Stress Reduction: The added excitement/anxiety of a show, race or moving barns may contribute to your horse’s likelihood of developing cramps. Stress can cause an increase in the production of stress hormones, such as cortisol, increased muscle tension or changes in behavior and exercise patterns that can contribute to the development of muscle cramps. Consult your Vet on how to best manage your horse through stressful experiences.
  5. Massage: Gentle massage can help relax muscles and improve circulation to alleviate cramping. Massage can also help reduce your horse’s emotional and physical stress and improve exercise recovery. It’s worth hiring a professional as poor technique can increase muscle damage, and cause pain and/or injury.
  6. Stretching: Careful, gentle stretching and mobility exercises can help improve flexibility and reduce future cramping. Ask your Vet or your equine massage therapist to show you how.
  7. Adjust Diet: Ensuring your horse has a well-balanced diet with appropriate levels of electrolytes, vitamins and minerals can help reduce the risk of muscle cramps. Consult your Vet to ensure your horse is receiving optimal nutrition.
  8. Hydrate: Adequate hydration is important for maintaining electrolyte balance and preventing dehydration, which can contribute to muscle cramps. Make sure your horse has easy access to fresh, clean water. Supplemental salt and/or flavor supplements may also encourage your horse to drink more and according to the AAEP the ideal water temperature for maximum palatability is between 45-65°F.
  9. Medications: Your veterinarian may recommend medications to help manage the symptoms of cramping or address underlying health issues that may be contributing to the cramping.

Prevention is always better than treatment. Taking steps to ensure your horse is well-hydrated, well-nourished, and gradually acclimated to new routines, such as exercise or travel, can help reduce the risk of muscle cramps.

Massage is also an extremely effective way to help manage your horse’s stress levels and improve care of their muscles.

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