Stay in the Game

Preventing Muscle Cramps, Groin Strains, and Stitches

Contributed by Sheryl Normandeau (Calgary, AB)

Broken bones and concussions are injuries often associated with the sport of hockey (and usually attract the most notice), but there are other, more common ailments that can affect a player’s performance and ability to play. Muscle cramps, groin strains, and stitches, while generally temporary conditions, can nevertheless be extremely painful. Fortunately, there are several methods of prevention which may minimize the occurrences of these troublesome problems.

Muscle Cramps

Most athletes have suffered exercise-associated muscle cramps at some time or another – and the pain of the muscle contraction can quickly put a temporary hold on any further activity. Muscle cramps most commonly occur in the lower leg or calf muscles, as well as the hamstrings or quadriceps, although they also affect other parts of the body, such as the feet, hands, or abdomen. The pain is acute, ranging from mild to severe, and the muscle often visibly bulges during the contraction.

The cause of muscle cramping is often attributed to the losses of nutrients such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium through sweat, as well as insufficient hydration. New research suggests that muscle cramping occurs more in fatigued athletes, either those who have participated in a sustained activity for a lengthy duration, or those who have worked hard at a new activity. Try these tips for preventing and dealing with muscle cramps:

Maintain a high level of all-around conditioning. Muscles that are regularly worked do not easily tire.

Don’t “take off” the off-season: keep moving and playing sport all year ‘round.

Rest the body on a regular basis. A recovery period is necessary to maintain proper muscular health.

When trying a new sport or training activity for the first time, go easy on yourself. Work up to going “all out.” Increase the duration and intensity slowly, over time.

Adhere to the proper techniques: this is crucial for everything from stretching to lifting weights to learning a new skill on the ice. Even if you’ve done an activity a million times before, don’t get lazy about it and risk injury.

Stretch, stretch, stretch! The importance of this pre-game, during-game, and post-game activity cannot be overstressed. Stretching is also the only way to combat a muscle cramp when it is occurring. A gentle stretch to elongate the contracted muscle usually offers relief. Try massaging the affected area at the same time as the stretch.

Keep warm. Muscles that are cold (either due to lack of a warm-up routine or the ambient temperature) are more likely to undergo stress.

Replenish your water intake throughout exercise, and top off electrolytes as needed.

If you are injured, take the time to heal and rest.

Muscle cramps may be a side effect of some medications – check with your doctor and pharmacist if in doubt. If your muscle cramps are frequent, extremely severe, or are not alleviated by stretching, consult with your doctor.

Groin Strains

Groin strains are the bane of hockey goalies, but they can be a problem for any athlete, especially those who participate in sports that require quick transitions between lateral and forward (or backward) movement. You’ll know you have a groin strain if you suffer pain or tenderness in the groin or the inner thigh, or – more significantly – if you felt a pop during the time of the injury, accompanied by the extreme pain that indicates an adductor muscle tear. Your range of motion may be either minimally or severely affected, depending on the degree of the strain.

Prevention of groin strains is the same as for muscle cramps, with proper conditioning and performing a quality warm-up and stretch before every game at the top of the list. If you think you have a groin strain or pull, immediately stop all activity. Most groin strains will heal with time and rest – do not go back to playing too quickly and risk re-injury. Icing the area may reduce any swelling that occurs (multiple applications of ice for short durations over a period of several days may be necessary until swelling and pain discontinues).

If the groin strain is severe, consult with a physician. Tests may be necessary to determine the extremity of the tear. Once the swelling and pain have been minimized, a course of physical therapy is usually prescribed to rehabilitate the muscles and help prevent a reoccurrence of the injury.


Known in the medical world as Exercise-Related Transient Abdominal Pain, but to the rest of us as a “pain in the side,” stitches are most often problematic for runners and swimmers, but can affect any athlete. Characterized by a sharp, often prolonged pain just below the rib cage, and occasionally accompanied by shoulder pain on the same side, stitches are not usually symptomatic of more serious problems.

The definitive cause for stitches has not yet been determined by scientists, but it is generally thought that they occur due to the rubbing of stomach contents against the layers of the abdominal cavity. This may happen when you exercise right after eating, especially if you have consumed large amounts of food or foods that are high in fat and/or fibre.

Try these tips for preventing stitches:

Wait at least two hours before exercising if you’ve chowed down on a large meal.

Do not drink sugary beverages before or during exercise – avoid soft drinks altogether and save the fruit juice for after the game. Water is always the better option, but don’t guzzle a lot down in one shot. Moderate water intake over the entire duration of the game is the key to minimizing the risk of stitches.

Stretch and warm up before exercising. Focus on a whole-body approach, which includes the arms, side, back, and abdominals.

Maintain proper conditioning.

Work on your breathing techniques: shallow breathing may increase the risk of getting a stitch.

If you are suffering a stitch, stop activity and wait for the pain to subside. Bending forward and pressing on the painful side may help quickly ease the pain.

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