The One Summer Health Issue You Probably Forgot About, But Need To Watch Out For

by Caroline Burke

Cramps are the worst, full stop. They can totally derail an otherwise good day, and they can even leave you bedridden when they become really severe. But when you're stuck on the couch this summer because of super intense stomach pain, you might make the mistake of assuming these cramps are caused by a random, nasty stomach bug, or even your period. In fact, the signs of heat cramps are super similar to those associated with menstrual cramps, which is probably why you've never even thought much about the former.

To that point, I have a serious question for you: Do you actually know what heat cramps are, or why they happen? It seems like one of those obvious things you learn about in health class as a kid, but I'll be honest, I had to google it myself to make sure I actually knew. According to the Mayo Clinic, heat cramps are "painful, involuntary muscle spasms that usually occur during heavy exercise in hot environments." That's why you might experience them more often in the summer, especially if you like to skip the air-conditioned barre class in favor of a sweaty run around your local park. Though heat cramps typically cause discomfort in your stomach, the Mayo Clinic notes that the pain can also manifest in your legs, calves, arms, and even your back.

But heat cramps don't just happen after a really intense workout session. According to Healthline, the main causes of heat cramps are usually lack of fluids or lack of minerals (like calcium, potassium, magnesium, etc.) — which, yes, when coupled with a lot of exercise under the sun, can obviously take a huge toll on your body.

If you think you have heat cramps, then there's a pretty good chance that you're seriously dehydrated.

Even if you think you're drinking a normal amount of water in the days, or even hours leading up to the cramps, it might not be nearly enough when you factor in how much you're sweating, due to both the temperature outside and how much energy you're exerting. The Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut notes that it's important for people to carefully consider how much fluid and electrolyte loss they may be experiencing during their workouts, and to even use a sweat-loss equation that the school developed for this very reason.

If you're not sure whether you're feeling heat cramps or some other hellish form of pain, there are a few key factors to focus on that'll help you figure out what exactly is going on in your body. First, the location of the cramps can obviously give you a hint. But if you know they're definitely happening in your stomach, then you should pay attention to what's actually going on with the heat cramps.

According to Medicine Net, heat cramps are characterized by intermittent, involuntary muscle spasms, so in terms of sensation, it should almost feel like you're clenching your muscles, then releasing them — though it's obviously all happening without your control. Another thing to consider is what led up to the onset of your cramps. If you know you're not getting your period for another few weeks, or it suddenly dawns on you that you've been taking a new (and extremely difficult) workout class the last few days, then it's pretty likely that you're dealing with heat cramps, as opposed to something else.

Since heat cramps are directly related to fluid loss and exposure to heat, the best way to deal with them is to cool off and drink up.

MedicineNet notes that you don't necessarily have to seek medical care for heat cramps. If the pain is bearable, then you should try to find somewhere shaded and cool to relax for a moment, drink a lot of water, and get some electrolytes back into your system (think bananas or Gatorade). If the pain persists, or you're starting to feel other symptoms, like lightheadedness or serious fatigue, then your heat cramps could be a symptom of something much more serious, like heat stroke or heat exhaustion. In that case, MedicineNet suggests seeking medical care immediately, as your body might be having trouble lowering its core temperature, and this can be incredibly dangerous for your health.

The good news is that preventing heat cramps is pretty easy. It's all about making hydration and self-care big priorities in your day-to-day, and easing yourself into the warmer months before you dive headfirst into a half-marathon, or a new, two-hour, outdoor workout class.

There's so much to look forward to when summer rolls back around, but your health should always come first, no matter what time of year it is.