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First Aid Guide: Heat Cramps

TeamAckoJan 17, 2024

Do you remember seeing the television commercial in which the sun pulls out a straw and sucks the energy out of a child leaving him exhausted? That’s what summer feels like for the most part, especially for people whose jobs keep them outdoors for long hours. This excessive heat can cause a lot of health problems such as heat exhaustion, heat syncope, and heat stroke. At one end of this spectrum is a mild form of heat illness called Heat Cramps (HC). Read ahead to know more about first aid for Heat Cramps. 




What are Heat Cramps?

Heat Cramps are sudden, painful, involuntary spasms of muscles that occur mostly in the arms, legs & abdomen when exercising or physically exerting in a hot environment. If HC are not managed, they can progress to more severe forms of heat illness like a heat stroke which requires emergency care and hospitalisation. Hence it is important to quickly deal with even minor forms of heat illness and prevent worsening of the condition. 

Quick action: First aid for Heat Cramps

Here are some quick action items for you in case of Heat Cramps. 

  • Stop any physical activity and shift the person to a cooler, well-ventilated area, preferably indoors. If there's access to air conditioning available, use it. 

  • Remove any excess layers of clothing/gear.

  • Stretch the affected muscles and the nearby joint fully. 

  • Massage the affected muscles, making sure to keep them fully stretched. 

  • Provide proper fluid replenishment. This typically involves water with electrolytes (mainly sodium and potassium) in it. ORS (Oral Rehydration Solution) is a readily available product that can be given as a fluid replacement. Sports drinks that are commercially sold also make good replacements. 

  • It is important to continue hydration even after the cramp has resolved. Do not resume physical activity immediately.

  • If the HC persists, an ice pack or cooling compress can be applied to the cramping muscle.

  • Rest and allowing time for recovery are important. Do not return to the exercise or activity in haste as it can progress to heat exhaustion and heat stroke which are more serious conditions. 

Why do Heat Cramps occur?

Heat cramps occur when someone is exercising intensely, or performing an activity that requires a lot of physical exertion in an environment where the temperature is higher than what they are used to. 

In such a hot environment, there is a lot of sweating associated with the loss of water as well as salts & electrolytes from the body. This can result in dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, which causes the muscles to spasm and cramp. The lack of enough sodium particularly is an electrolyte indicated in causing HC. 

Another major contributory factor is improper replenishment following exercise. As there is a loss of both water and salts, both must be replaced. Most people drink only water after exertion or intense sweating. However, that is not enough. The consumption of fluids with electrolytes following exercise, like sports drinks (not the sugar-loaded ones), coconut water, etc., is recommended instead.

HC is a sign that the body is overheated. The core temperature of the body is elevated in this case. It can also be a sign of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, which are more insidious in onset. Athletes training and competing in hot environments that they are not used to are very susceptible to this type of cramping. This occurs as a result of not properly acclimating to the new surroundings and going in unprepared to deal with the heat. 

How do Heat Cramps present themselves?

Here’s how Heat Cramps present themselves.

  • These are typically very painful, with the affected person usually screaming and writhing in pain holding the affected side. 

  • The spasms typically occur in the arms, legs, or abdomen.  

  • The pain can usually be pinpointed by the person to a particular location on their body. 

  • The muscles appear tight and visibly contracted and are hard to touch. 

  • They may show signs of overheating, like profuse sweating, panting, elevated heartbeat, headache, giddiness, etc. 

Who can get Heat Cramps?

Although just about anyone can get HC, these are the risk factors for developing them.

  • Profuse sweating

  • Exercising in hot environments that they're not previously acclimated to

  • Improper or poor replenishment with appropriate fluids and electrolytes

  • Prolonged exercise/training 

  • Wearing multiple layers/clothes/protective gear. 

  • Babies and young children and elderly persons are more susceptible.

Children’s bodies always take a longer time to get adjusted to new environmental conditions. They heat up faster and don’t sweat as much. Ultimately, this means that children find it much more difficult to adapt to higher temperatures and are more likely to develop heat-related illnesses.

In elderly persons, the sweat glands shrink over time. Sweating is one of the most important measures used by the body to cool itself. Hence, people who don’t perspire much are more likely to develop HC.

When to seek medical help for Heat Cramps?

Seek help immediately in case of the following. 

  • Cramping persists for more than half an hour.

  • Temperature exceeds 40ºC of 104ºF.

  • There is no sign of improvement with the above measures.

  • There are signs of progressively worsening heat illness, such as headache.

Can Heat Cramps be prevented?

These are some important measures to be considered in order to prevent overheating and its many unwanted effects on the body. 

  • Avoid strenuous outdoor activity when it is hot, especially between 11 am and 4 pm. 

  • For athletes, acclimatising to any changes in the environment such as altered temperature or altitude is essential prior to beginning their activity.

  • When in a hotter environment, gradually increase the intensity of exercise instead of performing at a high intensity from the get-go. This allows your body to slowly adjust and also improve performance.

  • Adequate fluid replenishment is key. Carrying the right type of fluids, and consuming them at the right time as per their requirement is important to prevent heat cramps. 

  • Wearing appropriate clothing and gear that does not cause harm. Remove unnecessary layers. Keep in mind to not compromise personal safety while carrying this out. 

  • Take adequate breaks in between the activities. 

  • Consume a diet that is rich in electrolytes and ensure that you are well hydrated at all times.

  • Eliminate caffeine and alcohol as these foods act as diuretics and increase urine output and make people more susceptible to dehydration and heat cramps.

With temperatures soaring across the globe, sun protection measures are a must. While remaining indoors is ideal, it is not always possible. Opt for lightweight, loose clothes while stepping out. Always carry a bottle of water (preferably with added electrolytes like Electral). Apply sunscreen liberally and try to stay in the shade. Take frequent breaks and don’t forget to check up on your friends and family who live alone!

Frequently Asked Questions

Here’s a list of FAQs related to first aid for Heat Cramps.


How long do Heat Cramps last?

Typically, heat cramps last between 30 to 60 mins. Cramps that last over an hour need medical attention.

What will happen if Heat Cramps are left untreated?

Overheating of the body is a very serious condition. If activity is continued despite cramping, it can progress to heat stroke with an extremely high body temperature that can even result in death.

Can food help in electrolyte replenishment after intense workouts?

Yes! These include vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, and potatoes, fruit such as bananas, strawberries, watermelon, and nuts like almonds. Drinking milk or buttermilk also helps. Overall, drinks are preferred as they help replenish water and electrolytes at the same time.

Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. Please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.


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