Medical News Today: What are hand cramps?

Hand cramping can occur for many reasons and cause significant discomfort in some people.

Often, hand cramps are caused by muscle spasms, which are described as an uncontrollable or involuntary muscle contraction. These spasms or contractions do not allow the muscle to become relaxed and can become excruciating in some cases.







What causes a muscle to spasm or cramp?


hand cramps
Muscle cramps may be caused by dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and overuse injuries


Under usual circumstances, muscle contraction is the result of normal processes within the body including communication between the brain, spinal cord, and the muscles. 


Certain chemicals and proteins are also involved in normal muscle contraction and are responsible for the shortening and relaxation of muscle fibers. 


The brain is responsible for signaling the muscle to contract through a process of electrical signals and chemical releases.


During the process of muscle contraction, brain signals are sent through the spinal cord and directly to the muscle. Chemicals and proteins interact within the muscle causing muscle shortening and relaxation. 


When there is an abnormal interruption in this process of muscle contraction, muscle spasms and cramping can occur. Often, this pain self-resolves within minutes. 


Muscle twitching may also accompany muscle spasms or cramps and can be present during periods of resting or in the time following a muscle contraction. 




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What causes hand cramps?


Causes may include:


  • electrolyte imbalances

  • dehydration

  • exercise in high temperatures

  • overuse injuries 

  • diabetic stiff hand syndrome 

  • arthritis


Electrolyte imbalances


Electrolytes are substances within the body, which are responsible for maintaining normal bodily functions, such as nerve and muscle activity, hydration, blood pH, blood pressure, and tissue repair. 


Muscles require a harmonious electrolyte balance to function correctly, and an alteration in these levels can lead to muscle contractions and hand cramps. 


For example, vital electrolytes for muscle function include calcium, sodium, magnesium, and potassium. Changes in these electrolytes can not only cause painful hand cramping due to muscle spasm but can also be life-threatening in certain situations. 


Electrolyte imbalances can be caused by several conditions including but not limited to:


  • kidney disease

  • severe dehydration

  • prolonged vomiting from bulimia, pregnancy, or other causes

  • excessive heat

  • pH imbalances

  • congestive heart failure

  • cancer treatments

  • specific medications for blood pressure or water retention

Treatment for electrolyte imbalances will depend on several factors including the cause and severity of the condition. 


Doctors will discuss a detailed plan of care to address this condition. 


Overuse injuries


An overuse injury is often called writer’s cramp and may be associated with specific or general movements of the affected muscles that are used in fine motor movements. 


Activities that may increase a person’s risk for developing writer’s cramp or an overuse injury include things, such as: 


  • writing or typing for a long period 

  • playing a musical instrument 

  • using an excessive grip on things, such as a pen, utensil, shovel, tools, or smartphone

  • excessive wrist flexion

  • elevation of the elbow

  • finger extension

Rheumatoid arthritis


rheumatoid arthritis in the left hand
Rheumatoid arthritis can lead to joint stiffness and joint pain.


Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a form of arthritis in which the body attacks its healthy cells, causing pain in the affected joints and other parts of the body.


Commonly, the hand joints are affected that can lead to symptoms, such as 


  • joint pain or aching

  • joint stiffness, tenderness, and swelling

  • weight loss

  • fever, fatigue, weakness

Treatment for RA may include medications called disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), or biological response modifiers called biologicals. 


Additionally, joint friendly, low-impact exercises may be beneficial to those with RA and include swimming, walking, and biking.


Diabetic stiff hand syndrome


Those with type 1 and type 2 diabetes are at risk for developing a condition called diabetic stiff hand syndrome. This condition limits finger movement due to the hands becoming waxy and thick.


Sometimes, those with diabetic stiff hand syndrome experience


  • weakened hand joints

  • diminished hand function

  • finger stiffness and inability to bring fingers together 

  • thickened, tight and waxy skin on the back of the hand

Controlling blood sugar levels may prevent a person with diabetes from developing diabetic stiff hand syndrome. 


Treatment options may include physical therapy, stretching, and exercises that promote hand flexibility and strength, such as throwing and catching a ball. 




Prevention


Prevention of hand cramps depends on the cause of the condition. For example, if dehydration following intense workouts in excessive heat cause hand cramps, consider exercising in cooler temperatures and staying hydrated. 


Other ways to prevent hand cramps include:


  • stretching adequately

  • avoiding dehydration

  • practicing muscle strengthening exercises 

  • undertaking low impact exercises, such as cycling, swimming, or walking

  • using the correct hand tools to avoid exerting excessive force

Doctors will have recommendations on preventing hand cramps depending on the specific cause of the condition. 


Underlying conditions should be addressed and treated by a qualified professional. 




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Home Remedies


Man stretching his hand and forearm
Applying heat or cold, massaging muscles, and stretching muscles may be recommended home remedies to relieve symptoms of hand cramps.


Home remedies may help relieve symptoms. These include: 


  • stopping any activity which is causing the hands to cramp

  • stretching muscles

  • massaging or rubbing the muscles 

  • applying heat or cold 

  • taking certain vitamins and supplements may be helpful, although this will depend on the cause and a person’s medical history

  • increasing fluid intake

As with any medical condition, evaluation and treatment by a doctor are recommended to treat the underlying cause of the condition. A doctor can also provide recommendations for treatment based on a person’s individual medical and health history. 


In most cases of hand cramps, the cause is minor and not life-threatening. However, there are some cases in which hand cramps is due to something more severe, such as Lou Gehrig’s disease, nerve irritation, or other diseases and conditions. 

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