Symptoms and Signs of Heat Cramps

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 6/17/2022

Doctor's Notes on Heat Cramps

Heat cramps are painful, brief muscle cramps that occur during or after exercise or work in a hot environment. Heat cramps are thought to be caused by an electrolyte deficiency.

Symptoms of heat cramps are painful muscle spasms usually involving the legs, chest, or abdomen. The cramps are involuntary, brief, they come and go, and they go away on their own. Heat cramps may be an early sign of serious heat-related illness such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion may include

Symptoms of heat stroke include

  • hot, red, dry skin; altered level of consciousness (not acting right),
  • passing out, and
  • extremely high body temperature.

Heat stroke is a life-threatening medical emergency. If you suspect heat stroke, call 911 or get to a hospital immediately.

What Is the Treatment for Heat Cramps?

The treatment for heat cramps is supportive and aimed at cooling the victim so they do not progress to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Move the patient to a cool place where they can start to recover from the cramps. Other treatments for heat cramps may include:

  • Electrolyte replacement drinks 
  • Water 
  • Gentle stretching of the cramping body part 
  • Ice packs
  • Fans or air conditioning to more rapidly cool the patient 
  • Intravenous (IV) fluids if severe
  • Electrolyte supplements may be needed later in the treatment especially in someone with ongoing cramping after they have sufficiently cooled off 
  • Magnesium 
  • Potassium (if you do not have any kidney problems)

If the patient does not stop cramping or has a signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke call 911 immediately.

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.