Tag Archives: tennis

27Aug/14

Murray’s attack of the cramps

Most active people have suffered the agony of cramping. The uncontrollable vice-like spasm squeezes the blood out of the muscle, the acids build and the oxygen level drops. End result: writhing or hopping around until the tightness eases and pain gradually subsides. It is not uncommon for the effects to be felt for a day or so afterwards, much like post-exercise soreness. Usually there is one affected part of the body whilst Murray reports to have felt the cramping in his thighs, his trunk and forearms, a more widespread pattern.

Murray’s health team will monitor his electrolyte levels closely and implement a diet that optimises his needs. Widespread symptoms that are more suggestive of a systemic biological response is then, less likely to be explained by an issue of ions through dietary or liquid deficiency. However, we cannot totally eliminate this factor as the demands of any particular game are unique, both physically and psychologically — the two being inextricably linked as the whole person responding to a situation. As Murray says, you cannot really prepare for a game via practice. Practice is just that, practice. Hence the requirements are always different.

Nothing happens in isolation. The cramps did not just come on. They were the end result of a mass of biological activity in many body systems before emerging as a response by the whole body and person in an attempt to stop Murray playing at that moment. Inconvenient as this was at the time, Murray’s biology prevailed as it must, and he is subject to his biology as are we all. This biology is influenced enormously by cognition, that is, the way we are thinking, and the way we are thinking about our thoughts (metacognition), how we feel, and how we are thinking about how we are feeling. Understood? For there are chemical underpinnings to thought as much as movement, and movement is far more complicated that one may think. Our motor system is really a sensorimotor system. Actually, it is a ‘sensorimotorimmunoendocrinogastroautonomomusculoskeletal system’. That is no joke either. We are complex.

A thought, ‘I am thirsty’ initiates action in this system because the plan begins at that point — to get out of this chair, walk to the cupboard, pick out a glass etc etc. You may not even do this, but the plan is enacted. In some people with sensitivity, these thoughts and plans alone trigger pain. The system responds to watching others move as well. This is usually
below our conscious level but affects the way we move. In fact, movement is affected by where we are, who we are with, what we are thinking about doing, what we have done, how we are feeling and many other factors. Fortunately this data is scrutinised by the brain on our behalf before producing the required movement. When all is well, the systems work magnificently. When things go awry, it can range from inconvenience to catastrophic. And if it is at the inconvenient end of the spectrum, catastrophic thinking can have a dramatic effect upon the pain. I wrote about Messi’s experience of severe knee pain in 2012 when he collided with the goalkeeper. He thought his career was over because of the intensity of the pain. Examination revealed a bruise. He was playing again the next week. Pain is moulded by the situation, past experience and immediate thoughts.

Having seen huge numbers of people with chronic pain, complex pain and dystonia (a movement disorder that is characterised by unwanted and involuntary movements), one could think of a sportsman’s cramp as a transitory form. In rare cases, paroxysmal exercise-induced dystonia (PED) is diagnosed. This is a type of dystonia that is triggered by physical exertion and characterised by a sudden onset of dystonia movements: involuntary, painful spasms, torsional movements. They come and they go.

Another problem that is familiar is the yips. Arguably best known in golf, this is when a well rehearsed and automatic movement becomes conscious and falls apart. This can only happen if you are an expert. On addressing the ball, the ensuing swing is so natural, honed via thousands of rehearsals and practices, under normal circumstances. When the yips grips, this is forgotten and literally, the player does not know what to do. This is a problem of conscious thought and focus but also an issue of movement, an example of how mind-body are so integrated and bidirectional in terms of influence.

Hopefully Murray will not suffer a further bout of widespread cramping. I am sure that the medical team are looking at the footage and talking to him to establish the possible explanations and causes. It may be a one-off but thought needs to be given to why this happened and what has happened to learn and then reduce the risks of recurrence.