Muscle Spasm 101: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

6 min read

Are you experiencing sudden tightness and discomfort in your muscles? Are certain muscles hard to the touch, appear visibly distorted or twitch uncontrollably?

These are all signs that you may be suffering from muscle spasm.

Muscle spasms can occur in many parts of the body for a variety of reasons. The more you know about the causes and treatments for muscle spasms, the better you can prevent them and find fast relief.

Keep reading to learn exactly what a muscle spasm is, what causes them, and how to say good-bye to discomfort.

What is Muscle Spasm?

Muscle spasm is an involuntary and forcible contraction of the muscle that causes discomfort and pain. These spasms can involve the entire muscle, part of a single muscle, or a group of muscles together. Once the muscle spasms, it's difficult to get it to relax.

Spasms can occur in various parts of the body but are most common in the:

  • Back
  • Legs (including calves and thighs)
  • Arms and hands
  • Abdomen and ribcage

A sudden tightening of the muscles in your leg or calf is known as a charley horse and is fairly common.

Muscle spasms feel differently for everyone. For some, it's mild discomfort, but for others, it can cause extreme pain ranging from an ache to a sharp, severe onset of pain.

Most spasms last for 15-20 seconds before the muscle relaxes and releases the tension. In some cases, the muscle relaxes only to tighten again moments later. The good news is, most encounters are brief and subside after a few minutes.

But what causes muscle spasm to occur seemingly out of nowhere? And can you prevent them? Le'ts find out.

Causes of Muscle Spasm

Several things can cause muscle spasm. Some are within your control, while others are your body's natural reaction to external factors.

Common causes include:

  • Muscle fatigue
  • Dehydration
  • Not stretching before exercise or other physical activity
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Lack of magnesium, calcium, and potassium in the body
  • Exercising in the heat

When you fail to adequately stretch before and after exercise, your muscles are more likely to tighten up.

Hydration, electrolytes, and important ingredients like calcium and potassium help deliver blood and oxygen to your muscles. Without these important elements, your muscles can't stretch and move naturally. This can lead to not only muscle spasm but tears, strains, and other serious injuries.

Another important thing to know about muscle spasm is that it can affect people of all ages, genders, and physical abilities. Regardless of how active you are, a muscle spasm can hit out of nowhere. Simple tasks like walking to through the grocery store, stretching in your sleep, or reaching for something on a high shelf can cause muscle spasm.

Some people are more prone to muscle spasm than others. Certain age groups are also at greater risk. These include infants, people over the age of 65, people suffering from an illness, endurance athletes, and people who overexert themselves during exercise.

Finding Relief from Muscle Spasm

Now that you have a better idea of what causes muscle spasm, let's discuss some ways to relieve the pain of these unpredictable incidents.

Muscle spasm is an involuntary tightening and twitching of a single muscle or group of muscles. The best way to find relief is to help the muscle relax.

Long-term relief includes stretching and the use of pain relievers or muscle relaxers. But you can find immediate relief in a few ways.

Press firmly on the affected area for approximately a minute. Try rubbing the area around the spasm using circular motions.

Pushing too hard might be uncomfortable or painful so only use the amount of pressure that you can tolerate. You don't want to aggravate the spasm any further.

If you feel the muscle twitching or pulsating, wait a few seconds before applying pressure. Both heat and ice can offer relief from muscle spasm.

The difference is this. Applying heat helps relax muscles and soothe stiff joints. Ice, on the other hand, reduces inflammation and eases sharp pain.

See which treatment feels best for your particular condition or alternate between the two.

Areas of the Body Affected by Muscle Spasm

Different areas of the body react differently to muscle spasms. Let's take a closer look at signs and treatment for muscle spasms throughout your body.

Back

With over 80% of the population suffering from back pain, this type of muscle spasm is most common. It can also be one of the most painful.

Most spams occur in the lower back and correct themselves without intervention. Others are a sign of something more serious like nerve issues related to the spine.

Most low back spasms are caused by heavy lifting without proper support. Strained muscles and ligaments during sports, exercise, or sudden movements can also trigger spasms.

Individuals with underlying medical issues like arthritis or ruptured discs are also at greater risk for muscle spasm.

A medical professional will use a variety of tools to determine the cause of the spasm. An MRI, CT scan, or X-ray can tell a lot about the possible cause and location of the issue.

You can also help your doctor determine the problem by providing the following information:

  • When the pain started
  • How often it occurs
  • If it was triggered by a specific movement
  • The severity of the pain
  • What techniques relieve the pain

All of these are important pieces of information in choosing a treatment plan.

Basic treatment includes over the counter pain relievers and alternating heat and ice on the injured area. If the issue continues, the doctor might recommend anti-inflammatory injections. Some people find relief through a chiropractor or massage therapist.

Legs

You've probably had (or at least heard of) a charley horse at one time or another. This is a common muscle spasm that occurs in the leg, primarily in the calf.

Charly horses can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes and are quite painful. Some people experience similar muscle spasms in their thighs and feet, but these are less common.

Once the pain subsides it's not uncommon for you to feel sore or tender at the sight of the cramp. It's also interesting to note that most leg cramps occur during the night when your body and muscles are relaxed.

There are two causes of leg cramps – idiopathic and secondary. The first type of leg cramp occurs for no specific reason. Secondary leg cramps are most common following exercise, when taking certain medications, during pregnancy, and in those individuals with liver disease.

Stretching both before bed and when the cramping starts can help offer relief. To prevent leg cramps at night you can try a few different sleeping positions.

While lying on your back, make sure your toes are pointing upward toward the ceiling. For stomach-sleepers, hang your feet off the edge of the bed so that your foot remains relaxed.

Arms

Muscle spasms in the arm are less common than other areas of the body. These types of muscle spasms are generally due to injury, stroke, or other condition affecting the nervous system.

This condition is also known as upper limb spasticity and causes the muscles of your arm to flex, tighten, and become stiff.

Stretching the limb, applying heat or ice, and taking pain relief medication can help relieve these symptoms.

Other Causes of Muscle Twitching and Tightness

Twitching and tightness are commonly associated with muscle spasms but have other underlying causes.

Your body naturally tightens up when you're under extreme stress or anxiety. This muscle tightness can also cause muscles to twitch.

Reducing your stress or practising calming, breathing exercises can help your body and muscles relax, preventing tightness, twitching, and spasms.

Many people experience twitching in the muscles around their eyes before or during a tension headache. If the surface of your eyelid is irritated, you may also experience involuntary twitching or spasms.

Too much caffeine or stimulants can also cause your muscles to twitch uncontrollably. Nutrient deficiency is another common cause of twitching, primarily in the face, hands, and calves.

Low levels of vitamins B and D, as well as calcium, are all attributed to muscle spasm and tightness.

In addition to a lack of nutrients, not consuming enough water is another common cause of muscle spasm. When your muscles are dehydrated they tend to tighten and contract. This is most common in large muscle groups like the back, legs, abdomen, and arms.

Nicotine use is linked to leg cramps. The use of certain medications including estrogen pills and corticosteroids are also proven to increase your chances of muscle spasm and cramping.

Prevent and Treat Muscle Spasms

Your best defence against a painful muscle spasm is knowledge. When you know the root cause of your muscle tightening, stiffness, and twitching, you can take measures to prevent them.

Be sure to include plenty of essential nutrients and hydration in your daily routine – especially if you're physically active. Be mindful of your sleep positions and avoid heavy lifting and sudden, jarring movements.

In addition to these preventative measures, eating a well-balanced diet filled with plenty of protein is crucial for maintaining optimum performance. Quality supplements add another layer of protection to your regime.

Let the trained professionals at Muscle Food help you find the perfect snacks, drinks, and meal plans to help you crush your goals!

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