Hi folks. I have had a spate of calls from folks lately wanting to come to me for help with muscle spasms and injuries almost immediately after they occur which has prompted me to write this short little article on what to do about muscle spasms and injuries that cause them in the first instance and also how to help them recover.
What is a muscle spasm?
A muscle spasm, or muscle cramp, is an involuntary contraction of a muscle. Muscle spasms occur suddenly, usually resolve quickly, and are often painful. A muscle spasm is different than a muscle twitch. A muscle twitch, or fasciculation, is an uncontrolled fine movement of a small segment of a larger muscle that can be seen under the skin.
Muscles are complex structures that cause movement in the body. There are three types of muscle in the body:
- Heart muscle pumps blood (cardiac muscle).
- Skeletal muscle moves the external body parts, like the arms and legs, and the neck, back and trunk.
- Smooth muscle moves portions of hollow structures inside the body. Examples include the muscles that line the esophagus, stomach and intestine, muscles that line large arteries and the muscles of the uterus.
The main type of muscle most people will deal with when it comes to spasms and cramping etc is Skeletal Muscle.
Skeletal muscles are anchored to bone, either directly or by a tendon. When the muscle contracts, the associated structure moves. This allows arms to lift, legs to run, and the face to smile. Most of these muscles are under willful or conscious control of the brain. This type of muscle is striated or striped with dark-colored muscles fibers containing large amounts of myoglobin, the protein that helps carry oxygen and light-colored fibers that have lesser amounts of the protein. The contraction of a skeletal muscle requires numerous steps within cells and fibers that need oxygen, electrolytes, and glucose, which are supplied by the bloodstream.
What causes a muscle spasm?
There are a variety of causes of muscle spasms, and each depends upon predisposing factors, the part of the body involved, and the environment the body is working in.
Spasms may occur when a muscle is overused and tired, particularly if it is overstretched or if it has been held in the same position for a prolonged period of time. In effect, the muscle cell runs out of energy and fluid and becomes hyper-excitable and then develops a forceful contraction. This spasm may involve part of a muscle, the whole muscle, or even adjacent muscles.
Overuse as a cause of skeletal muscle spasm is often seen in athletes who are doing strenuous exercise in a hot environment. This is also an occupational issue with construction workers or others working in a hot environment. Usually, the spasms will occur in the large muscles that are being asked to do the work. Overuse can also occur with routine daily activities like shoveling snow, or mowing or raking grass causing muscle spasms of the neck, shoulder, and back.
Unfamiliar exercise activities can also cause muscle spasms to occur. Abdominal spasms can occur when a person decides to begin working their abdominal muscles by doing situps and does too many too quickly.
It is commonly thought that dehydration and depletion of electrolytes will lead to muscle spasm and cramping. Muscle cells require enough water, glucose, sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium to allow the proteins within them to interact and develop an organized contraction. Abnormal supply of these elements can cause the muscle to become irritable and go into spasm.
There are also medical conditions that can cause muscle spasms in skeletal muscle;
- Atherosclerosis or narrowing of the arteries (peripheral artery disease) may also lead to muscle spasm and cramps, again because adequate blood supply and nutrients are not able to be delivered to the appropriate muscle. Peripheral artery disease can decrease the flow of blood to the legs causing pain with activity. There may also be associated muscle cramps.
- Leg spasms are often seen related to exercise, but cramps may also be seen at night involving calf and toe muscles. Nocturnal leg cramps and restless legs syndrome are considered a type of sleep disturbance.
- Systemic illnesses like diabetes, anemia (low red blood cell count), kidney disease and thyroid and other hormone issues are also potential causes of muscle spasms.
- Diseases of the nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injury, can be associated with muscle spasm.
How are muscle spasms treated?
Should a skeletal muscle go into spasm, the initial treatment is to gently stretch the muscle back to length to break the spasm cycle and resolve the acute situation. If the spasm has occurred due to injury, then using ice packs or cold packs is recommended to reduce inflammation initially. After a period of up to 72 hours has passed, heat can be used along with gentle massage to work out knots, improve blood and lymphatic circulation and restore proper functioning through allowing healing nutrients and damaged cell removal.
If the spasm is not from a direct injury, heat packs are recommended along with gentle stretching of the muscle to help settle the spasm down. Again, after a period of 48-72 hours, gentle massage can be used to work out knots and assist healing.
* Massage, particularly deep massage, is not recommended at the time of injury as it can further inflame injury and worsen spasms. massage therapy is very useful once the spasm has settled.
Further treatment will depend upon the underlying cause of the muscle spasms. For muscles that have been damaged or strained, medications may be required for short-term pain relief, including anti-inflammatory medications and creams, narcotics, and muscle relaxants.
Prevention is the key to most skeletal muscle spasm episodes. Since they are often associated with dehydration and electrolyte disturbances, it is important to keep the body well hydrated. If the fluid loss is due to an illness with fever or vomiting and diarrhea, controlling the symptoms will help limit fluid loss and prevent spasms. Similarly, for those who work or exercise in a hot environment, drinking enough fluids to keep hydrated is very important.
Muscles should also be prepared for the activity that they are expected to do. Just as athletes stretch and warm up before the game, non-athletes should warm up before heavy labor, including jobs like raking, mowing, and shoveling.
I recommend people who have recurring bouts of moderate to severe muscle twitching and spasming are checked by a doctor first to make sure there is no underlying neurological reason or medical reason for them. Other than this it is generally a case of minerals and nutrients such as; water, glucose, sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium being depleted or not in enough supply and supplementation may see this easily remedied.
There we have it, now you know a bit more about muscle spasms and how to help them and prevent them. I am experienced at dealing with these types of conditions and stock professional quality supplements to help as well. Next time this happens to you, get in touch, only too happy to help.
Have a great day!
Craig Hitchens – MST.
My own clinical practice experience
* Note. This article is written for informational purposes only and is not designed to replace professional advice or treatment. Always consult a health care professional before undertaking any therapy programme.