No one is immune to muscle spasms. Spasms can occur any time of the day, including during exercise or while you are sleeping.
A muscle spasm is defined as a sudden, involuntary contraction of one or more of your muscles. Spasms can affect different muscles in the body and can cause severe pain.
Also known as muscle cramps, leg cramps or charley horse, spasms are more likely to occur in feet, legs, and lower back.
Let us learn more about muscle spasms, their causes and ways to treat them.
What is a muscle spasm?
A muscle spasm or a muscle cramp is an involuntary contraction of a muscle. These cramps can occur suddenly, without warning and they can cause sharp pain.
In some cases, you might even be able to see a hard lump of muscle beneath the skin. Muscle spasms usually resolve after some time on their own. These spasms can last from a few seconds to a few minutes.
These muscle spasms typically occur in the feet, leg and lower back, but you can also get them in the abdomen, hands, and ankles sometimes. The most commonly affected muscle groups include –
- Back of lower leg/ calf (gastrocnemius)
- Back of thigh (hamstrings)
- Front of thigh (quadriceps)
- Feet, hands, arms, and abdomen
Though generally harmless, muscle spasms can make it temporarily impossible to use the affected muscle. They can range in intensity from a slight twitch to severe pain.
In some cases, these cramps ease up and return several times before they go away completely.
What causes muscle spasms?
There are many different reasons why we develop muscle spasms in different parts of the body. These include –
1. Poor blood circulation
Narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the legs can lead to spasms. When you have poor circulation, your muscles don’t get enough oxygen and electrolytes to keep them stable.
This condition affects the toes, ankles, and calves the most as they are the furthest from the heart. This condition is known as arteriosclerosis.
2. Mineral depletion
A poor diet can lead to muscle spasms. If your diet includes too much sodium and too little potassium, calcium and magnesium, it can lead to cramps and pain.
Diuretics, the medication prescribed for high blood pressure, can also lead to mineral depletion.
3. Poor posture
If you stay in one position for a long time or sit down for long periods with a poor posture, it can lead to spasms in the lower back and neck.
You can get dehydrated from working out for a long time in the sun. Sweat contains fluids and electrolytes, which when depleted can lead to muscle spasms.
When we are dehydrated, our body prioritizes and maintains fluid levels in the vital organs. When the nerves that connect to muscles don’t receive enough water and sodium, they are not able to work correctly.
Athletes who become dehydrated while participating in sports in hot weather can develop muscle cramps.
Muscle spasms are common during pregnancy. Calcium deficiency in pregnant women can cause muscle cramping.
Older people lose muscle mass. The remaining muscles have to work extra hard, and they can become stressed easily.
7. Medical conditions
Specific medical conditions like diabetes, liver disease, and thyroid disorder can affect fluid levels in the body, which increases the risk of muscle cramps.
8. Nerve compression
Compression of nerves in the spine (lumbar stenosis) can produce cramp-like pain in the legs. The pain can get worse the longer you walk.
Home remedies for muscle spasms
The pain from a muscle spasm can be excruciating. These home remedies provide quick relief from the intense pain.
1. Stretch and massage the affected area
When you get a muscle spasm, you must stand and walk around. This action helps to get more blood to circulate in the affected area.
Once you get some relief, gently stretch and massage the affected muscle. Use long strokes of your hands and fingers to apply the pressure.
Hold this position for a few seconds and then release. This help to calm the muscle so that it stops contracting. You can also use massage oil.
2. Use hot and cold compresses
If you feel stretching and massaging is not enough, you can apply a hot or cold compress to the affected area. Dip a towel in hot water and use it on the affected area.
This hot compress will improve blood circulation and help relax the muscle. Alternatively, you can also apply a cold compress to the area.
Wrap a towel around ice cubes and apply it to the area. This action helps reduce pain, soreness, and swelling and helps numb the area.
3. Use clove oil
Clove oil has anti-inflammatory properties that can help in treating muscle spasms. Warm a small amount of clove oil and massage it on the affected area in a circular motion.
This massage with clove oil will help reduce inflammation and swelling in the muscle. Clove oil also helps provide relief from pain as it also has a numbing effect.
4. Use Epsom salt
Epsom salt can also help provide relief from muscle spasms. Add some Epsom salt to warm bath water and soak in it for at least 20 minutes. People with diabetes, blood pressure and hearts disease should not use this remedy.
5. Blackstrap molasses
If your muscle cramps are due to calcium or potassium deficiency, having blackstrap molasses can help provide relief. Blackstrap molasses is a rich source of these minerals.
Mix one tablespoon of this molasses in a glass of warm water or milk to help ease the tension in your muscles.
6. Have anti-inflammatory foods
Foods with anti-inflammatory properties can help provide relief from swelling during a spasm. Have rosemary or chamomile tea as they act as relaxants.
Tart cherry juice is also helpful in combating inflammation and muscle pain. Blueberries are also known to accelerate recovery from muscle inflammation. Capsaicin, a substance in cayenne pepper, is also a muscle relaxant.
Specific stretching exercises can provide relief from muscle cramps. These include neck rotation, back stretches, and exercises that help induce flexibility to leg muscles.
Specific yoga poses also help provide relief from muscle spasms. However, it is essential to learn these exercises from an expert, before you attempt them on your own.
Tips to prevent muscle spasms
Many remedies help prevent muscle spasms. These include –
1. Stay hydrated
Dehydration is one of the most common causes of muscle spasms. So, make sure you drink enough water through the day. If the weather is hot or you have been exercising, drink more water to make up for the fluids lost due to sweat.
You should also cut back on alcohol, coffee, and carbonated drinks as they can exacerbate hydration problems.
2. Stretch before and after exercise
Intense exercise without proper warm-up can lead to leg cramps. A proper warm-up ensures that the muscle fibers are flexible and ready for the activity ahead.
Do a bit of cardio exercise to increase the heart rate and then stretch the muscles that you will be using. After you have finished exercises, you must stretch again as this helps your muscles recover and improves blood circulation.
3. Exercise regularly
We lose muscle mass as we age. Staying active and healthy can help make up for the loss of muscle mass. Regular exercise can help you maintain your muscle strength all through your life.
Aerobic activities like walking, running, and cycling will help keep your body fat percentage low and improve circulation. Strength training helps build muscles.
4. Improve your posture
Cramps in the back, neck, and legs are often the result of bad posture. When you sit in one position for a while, you can experience pain caused by muscle strain.
You can do specific exercises to realign your skeletal system to improve your posture. If your work requires you to sit in one position for long periods of time, you must invest in an ergonomic chair.
5. Alter your diet
Reduce your consumption of processed foods and add more fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet. These foods play an important role in reducing the risk of electrolyte imbalance in the body.
Bananas, grapes, oranges, dates, pork, and lamb are good sources of potassium. Foods rich in magnesium include nuts, beans, and whole grains. Milk and green vegetables contain calcium.
6. Supplement with vitamins
Consuming vitamins every day can help prevent muscle spasms. Vitamin B helps in improving the function of muscles and nerves. It helps to increase the production of red blood cells which deliver oxygen to the muscles.
Vitamin D improves muscle and bone strength. Vitamin E improves blood flow, and this helps in preventing cramps during the night.
7. Change your sleeping position
Nocturnal leg cramps occur due to the poor sleeping position. Your feet should be in a neutral position when you sleep. Make sure that your sheet is loose and your feet not in pulled towards you. Also, try to avoid sleeping sideways.
What is the difference between a muscle pull and a muscle spasm?
While muscle spasms are temporary, muscle pulls can take months for recovery. While muscle spasms are an involuntary contraction of muscles, muscle pulls happen when a tendon and the muscle to which it is attached get stretched beyond their normal range.
You can treat a minor muscle pull or a slightly torn muscle at home with ice packs and anti-inflammatory medicine. A significant muscle pull or a severely torn muscle can take months to heal.
This type of injury happens to people who are involved in high-intensity sports. It can also happen to people if they run improperly, lift heavy objects or if they accidentally fall.
In some severe cases, surgery is needed for the repair of the torn muscle.
Muscle spasms are an involuntary contraction of muscles. They are generally caused by poor circulation, mineral depletion, and dehydration.
Older people, who lose muscle mass and pregnant women can also experience muscle spasms. You can effectively treat muscle spasms at home by stretching and massaging the affected area, using hot and cold compresses, having anti-inflammatory foods and using clove oil.
You must stay hydrated, stretch before exercise, exercise regularly, and improve our posture to prevent muscle spasms.