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Ask any athlete and he or she will tell you that, while not necessarily the most serious, muscle cramps can be one of the most painful and bothersome injuries that can be sustained.

It is not uncommon to see a stoppage of play in the major sports leagues while trainers attend to an athlete taken down by cramps. And if cramps can affect the top athletes in the world, it can certainly affect the less serious athletes. So the question is, what can be done to prevent cramps?

Most cases of cramps take place outdoors on a hot day, which indicates a link between dehydration and cramping. So it is always a good idea to drink as much water as possible when one is physically active. In fact, it is recommended to drink water before one gets thirsty to make sure cramps don't happen in the first place.

Another common cause of cramping is muscle tightness. This problem can easily be prevented with a regular regimen of stretching before any physical activity. Stretching does more than prevent just cramps. It can also make people less susceptible to more serious injuries like groin or hamstring pulls. Finally, it can sometimes be helpful to eat a banana an hour or so before beginning the activity.

Muscle action depends in part of potassium in the muscle, and bananas are a good source of this mineral. Many people are bothered by nighttime cramps. If one is bothered by recurrent nighttime cramps in the leg, raising the leg higher than normal can help. Relaxing and drinking a glass of milk before bed can also help prevent cramps. Cramps are most common in the leg, involving the gastrocnemius and/or soleus muscle, but can also occur in the forearm.

If precautions are not taken, cramps can be very common. When one tries to move the cramped muscle, it contracts violently. There is usually a visible distortion of the affected area along with sudden pain. The muscle seems hard and tense and it is impossible to control. An ordinary cramp lasts no longer than a few minutes and will quickly clear up of its own accord. It is possible to hasten and ease the process by massaging the muscle and gradually forcing it to function. In most cases there is no reason for concern when one has cramps. When cramps are accompanied by other symptoms, however, a more serious disorder may be causing them.