Picture this, you got done with that incredibly tough work out, perhaps you were on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s intense Blueprint to Mass , whatever the case is- you just worked your muscles out to their limits. Now you’re sitting there a few hours later with a TON of muscle pain, and you’re aching and cramping begging for it to stop.
You’re thinking of what was so different, and you’re looking at your water intake and noticing it was quite low.
Maybe you just even woke up late for work today and forgot to drink anything on your way out. You’re just aching at the desk in pain.
But, can dehydration cause muscle pain?
Yes, dehydration can cause SEVERE muscle pain. Not drinking enough water is like not putting oil in your car’s engine- it just causes all that metal to scrape together. The same thing is with your body: your skeletal muscle, joints, and organs will hurt. You can experience severe headaches, cramping, and execruciating pain. (Journal of Athletic Training 2006)
Let’s cover this more in-depth, and find out exactly why dehydration causes muscle pain.
What Is The ‘Definition’ of Dehydration?
Officially, the definition of dehydration is well, being not hydrated. But what are the numbers on this?
According to the World Health Organization, losing 10% of your body weight in fluid (which you do all day) is defined as extremely dehydrated. When you’re extremely hydrated you’re very close to dying, at that point your heart is close to failing. (no blood volume, the electrical system starts to fail due to lack of potassium and sodium)
Generally, you can lose about 3-4% of your body weight in fluid and typically be fine. Most of us will do this throughout the day, but we will discuss this in a second.
Once you start to lose 5% or more of your body weight in fluid, then you’re going to get those symptoms that throw those red flags at you like, ‘hey! we DESPERATELY need water’. We’re talking about dizziness, headaches, extreme tiredness, etcetera.
You Lose a TON of your Fluid Everyday When You Don’t Realize It! (Even When You Breathe!)
Most people don’t know this, but when you breathe, you lose water.
Now we all know that we breathe in Oxygen and exhale Carbon Dioxide. But most people don’t know that you actually exhale water vapor with it. That’s why when it’s cold out and you breathe, you can see almost ‘smoke’ coming out of your mouth- it’s the water!
So literally just as you’re breathing and reading this article you’re losing water!
Now, we all know we probably lost a lot of water while exercising. You sweat a lot, and breathe a lot, but did you know your muscles actually use an increased amount of water after exercise…? (But, we will cover that in a minute)
Here are some more examples of when you’re losing fluid and you have NO idea!
- Sleeping (sweat in your sleep)
- Moving at all (increased metabolic demands more water)
- Thinking really hard (I’m not joking, there’s a reason your brain feels so foggy after taking a really hard exam or test!)
- Talking or singing. (any exhale has water come out)
- Just literally living. (your skin needs to rehydrate, organs use it).
So, you don’t need to be exercising or doing anything demanding for your body to rapidly be using your water supply. That’s why a lot of these people get this muscle pain, they are way more dehydrated than they thought!
Why Does Dehydration Cause Muscle Pain?
Now that we have an idea of how dehydrated we really are, let’s figure out: Why does dehydration cause muscle pain?
First and foremost, let’s start out with an analogy to better understand everything.
Your Body is 60% Water, and It’s Your Oil.
Your body is 60% water, not drinking water is just like not putting oil in your car’s engine.
Now, think of a car engine. All of that metal scraping against each other without oil will destroy your car in seconds. It’s the same thing with your body!
When you are dehydrated, it’s the same concept. With less water, your muscles, tendons, ligaments, skin, cells, etc. all have less lubricant to move around and work with.
Not only will this cause some cells to die, but it will also cause issues with the circulation of blood in your body- which even messes with your internal organs.
Look at these facts:
- The brain is 73% water.
- The lungs are 83% water.
- Your muscles and kidneys are 79% water
These organs don’t have all that water for nothing.
And making them have no water is nothing more than a recipe for diaster.
Your Joints Are 70% Water, and This Acts as a Lubricant
I briefly discussed this above, but let’s seriously hammer this point.
Your joints are 70% water, and that water stops the joints from scraping across your precious bone.
Now, this acts as a fantastic lubricant when you’re hydrated, but when you’re dehydrated now you have to picture what it’s like for your elbow or knees to be scraping into your other bones.
Not only imagine the permanent damage on that level but imagine how your muscles feel that are surrounding that bone. So now you have multiple nerve signals screaming at you, “WE NEED WATER NOW!!”.
Your Body Will Pull Water Towards Vital Organs AWAY From Your Muscles
In the event you start getting dehydrated, your body will pull water towards vital organs like your heart, liver, and lungs.
This is because those organs can take serious damage that can be fatal without water. Your body would rather lose a few toes due to dehydration than lose its’ heart, as that means you’ll survive another day.
This is Where a LOT of Muscle Pain From Dehydration Comes From
When your body pulls all that water to its’ core, it brings away two vital vitamins:
Sodium and potassium. (And magnesium, and well…other important vitamins too)
Sodium and potassium are CRITICAL in the muscle contraction process. And there’s a big muscle in your body that is way more important than your leg muscles, do you know what it is?
Your heart. And your heart needs sodium and potassium to successfully contract and keep pumping blood throughout your system.
That’s why if you eat too much potassium or sodium you can uh well- literally die. Your heart will be contracting too fast.
But when you’re dehydrated, your body pulls this away from those muscles so you don’t die.
This means those muscles have no sodium or potassium to normally contract and operate, leading to massive muscle pain- and in some cases severe muscle damage. (This is a common thing where people will get ‘stuck’ doing a push-up and can’t extend their arms for hours)
Dehydration Means Your Muscles Will Start Dying (Yes, it’s very painful).
If you’re dehydrated long enough, these muscle cells will not have the resources to sustain them and they will start dying.
You need to realize with reduced blood flow, your body pulling blood to the center, and no vitamins/minerals to sustain these cells, they will perish.
You can see the same thing if you don’t eat protein for a long time, because there is no amino acids in the body to keep all the muscle, your body will break down the muscle for those amino acids.
Now, when you start losing this muscle with little blood flow, things start to hurt bad.
You can get a severe build-up of waste nutrients that can’t be removed, potentially infecting other cells.
Let’s not even begin talking about what happens if one of your muscles gets infected and your immune system can’t even get there to respond to the infection. (hint: amputation)
Dehydration Increases Your Risk of Muscle Tears and Injury
If everything I’ve said in this article hasn’t scared you to start drinking water, this one may land the home run.
One of the leading causes of orthopedic injury is actually dehydration.
Sudden cramps when you’re walking can cause your muscles to lock up in weird positions, cause you to fall over, or move them in positions that can cause bad injury.
The most common way this happens is people suffering from heat cramps. They go out hiking, start sweating all day, then their legs start cramping bad and they can’t even walk. They can fall over and get a sprained ankle and be stranded out there.
Dehydration is NO joke. Even in the military they have you carry a canteen during PT.
Okay, realistically, you’ll just have mild symptoms.
Let’s be real, you’re probably just a little dehydrated and nothing bad has happened yet.
The symptoms I covered are really what happens if you want to ignore drinking water. If you’re just slightly dehydrated, you’ll probably get a headache, some small muscle cramps, but the ‘big scary’ stuff hasn’t really happened yet.
So don’t worry that you’re going to lose your leg just yet. Just go over and drink some water and prevent this from happening.
This article is mainly targeted at some of my friends who go hiking 15-20 miles in the summer heat and refuse to bring water because they ‘want to be manly’.
Or my friends that bodybuild 2-3 hours a day and refuse to hydrate seriously after their work out because ‘they don’t need it’.
Surprisingly, it’s really common. And a big reason many hikers are constantly rescued by air ambulances who are stranded in the middle of nowhere after they pass out.
But, make no mistake, hydration is no joke. And if you are feeling some muscle cramps or pain, start drinking some water.
A Little Dehydration Can Cause Muscle Pain, and There’s a Simple Fix.
A little dehydration can cause muscle pain. Thankfully, there’s a simple fix: just drink water!
If you’re having really bad muscle pain, I recommend reaching for a multi-vitamin or even some Gatorade (or some sports drink with electrolytes to help replenish you).
And this can happen to us all! Even just sleeping in for work and not drinking for so long can cause some minor symptoms.
Thankfully there is a simple fix and there usually won’t be any serious long term effects.
Bottom Line? Just drink some water at work, and if you’re doing a lot of exercise, drink even more!
A lot of people don’t drink as much water as they should. And ask anybody who takes their water drinking seriously, they couldn’t live without it.
My friend Jake always told me that ever since he started drinking a gallon of water a day, his life had changed. So, I listened to his advice, and I never had felt better in my life either. It’s a surprising difference.
Now, I’m not saying you need to do anything crazy like that. But seriously, water is the cheapest way to help you feel better and healthier. And get rid of some of that muscle pain.
Let me know how you’re handling your hydration- do you drink a gallon of water a day, or barely any at all?