Jun 2015

Relieving Cramp while Diving

By Mike Waddington

Imagine you are swimming along one day over the top of a beautiful coral reef, your mind is focused on watching all the colorful critters in their natural habitat when suddenly it feels like somebody has torn a hole in your calf and you cannot even move your leg because the pain is so intense. Sounds like you have just been hit by a cramp. Cramps can happen to everybody (and at some point they do happen to everybody), even super fit, experienced divers may occasionally get one. Most of the time they are just painful and annoying, but if you are caught in a strong current they can cause you to separate from your group or make you unable to get back to the boat or line. Cramps underwater are so common that most training organisations include cramp removal skills in entry level training, such as the Open Water course.

A cramp is a powerful, involuntary muscle contraction of a single muscle or a group of muscles that causes the effected muscles to lock in the contracted position. A cramp can occur in any muscle in the body, but is most likely to occur in the extremities, such as arms or legs. Cramps are common while scuba diving or snorkeling, especially in the calf, feet, thigh or hamstring. This is because our bodies are not designed to swim using fins, and the extra resistance that they create can lead to the muscles becoming overexerted.

The old myth is that by eating a few bananas and drinking some water before going for a dive you can avoid cramp. This is because most people believe that cramps are caused by dehydration and a lack of potassium. Unfortunately there is not much truth to these beliefs, cramps are simply a result of muscle fatigue, although dehydration and cold can prolong the cramp or make it worse.

There is only one way to avoid getting cramps, and that is to increase flexibility and strength in the affected muscles. To increase strength you can do traditional strength training, or try swimming more often with fins. It may help to start off using a more flexible or shorter fin, and progressing to longer or less flexible fins. To increase flexibility you just need to stretch the muscles that are giving you grief more often. Many free divers incorporate yoga into their training as it both aides relaxation and gives the necessary muscles a wider range of motion. If you frequently suffer from cramps while diving then it is a good idea to have a proper stretch before jumping in the water, just like how you should stretch before any strenuous exercise.

Although strength and flexibility have a lot to do with cramps, before you blame your body for causing that annoying, debilitating pain, your equipment may actually be what is causing you all the problems:

– If the foot pocket of your fins are not wide enough for your feet then there is a good chance that you will be experiencing foot cramps after only a few minutes of diving. This is because the bones in our feet are designed to spread apart as we put pressure on them, such as when standing, walking, or in this case, while finning. If the fins you are wearing are too tight then the bones will be crushed together and the muscles in your feet can’t work properly or circulate blood effectively. The same applies if you are using open heel fins and booties. The booties must be snug, but not too tight, as they too can also restrict the bones in your feet.

– If your fin straps are too tight they might put too much pressure on the Achilles tendons. If that happens there will be unnecessary tension on the calf muscles, which will cause a cramp in the calf. This can also happen if you are using closed heel fins and they are slightly too short for your foot length.

– If you are using a wetsuit or drysuit, make sure that the legs are not too restrictive. If you cannot move your legs though their full motion, then you won’t be able to fin efficiently, which means some muscles will be working harder than necessary, which will result in a cramp.

– If the blade of your fin is too rigid then the resistance may cause your calves and feet to cramp simultaneously.

Luckily if you do cramp up underwater, it is easy to fix. You simply have to ‘stretch it out’. Because almost all diving cramps occur in the rear of the leg, and the muscles affected are all linked, there is one fix for all diving cramps.

  1. First, raise the affected leg up in front of you
  2. Grab the end of the fin of the affected leg
  3. Pull the fin tip towards you while trying to straighten your leg
  4. Hold this position until the cramp disappears (usually only a few seconds)

If your cramp is too bad for you to be able to move your leg at all, signal to your buddy that you have a problem and they can help stretch it out for you. Massaging the effected muscle can help prevent the cramp from coming back too. Once the cramp has gone you can continue the dive, but move slower than you were going. After a muscle has cramped once it likely that it will happen again. If it keeps coming back then you then you should consider ending the dive.

Although cramps are annoying and painful, they are not dangerous themselves. A particularly strong cramp may cause a diver to sink deeper of float up as they lose control of their muscles. This is another reason why the buddy system is so important, and that everybody in the team constantly checks up on one another. It is important that you practice your cramp release technique frequently, so the next time you get caught off guard you know exactly what to do.

This is the Diving Hand Signal for Cramp.

‘Relieving Cramp while Diving’ was written by Mike

Photo Credit: Into the Blue Scuba Center

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Mike Waddington

I first discovered diving in 2008 after going snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. After trying diving at a flooded quarry in England I decided to head out to warmer more interesting waters in Thailand where I ended on the Island of Koh Tao completing my Open Water course. Instantly addicted with money to spend and plenty of time on my hands I decided to continue until I became a Divemaster so I could live what seemed as the perfect life.

After that I headed to the Caribbean to an island called Utila to complete my instructor course, I spent several months out there completing the MSDT internship, teaching students and leading dives. This is also where I discovered my interest in the technical side of diving, taking part in equipment repair courses and learning about blending gasses and running compressors.

With all my new qualifications it was time to head back to where it had all started, Back to Koh Tao where I intended on living the dream. Once I arrived I quickly found a job and started teaching straight away. During my time on Koh Tao I took part in all many technical diving courses, learning how to dive with re-breathers, in caves and even going down to 90m/300ft!


PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer
PADI/DSAT Tech Deep Instructor
PADI/DSAT Gas Trimix Gas Blender
PADI/DSAT Trimix Diver
TDI Intro to Cave Diver
TDI Advanced Wreck Diver
TDI Inspiration rebreather Decompression Procedures
PADI Professional Videographer
BSAC Compressor Operator
TDI Equipment Service Technician

Dream Dive Locations:

Silfra, Iceland
Cenotes, Mexico
Chuuk Lagoon, Micronesia
Ice Diving in Russia