Graduate of Longwood University in Virginia. Part-time sports journalist covering…
What are Muscle Spasms?
Muscle spasms happen to everyone from time to time. Maybe you’ve been on your feet more than normal on a busy weekend. You’re lying in bed on Sunday evening and suddenly you feel your calf muscle contract sharply. You immediately jump out of bed and start trying to walk out the tight, bulging muscle in your calf. It hurts, but you know you must stretch out that muscle. Finally, the pain eases.
Congratulations! You just had yourself a muscle spasm.
Muscle spasms, also commonly referred to as muscle cramps, are forceful contractions that occur involuntarily in the effected muscle. They are usually sudden and painful, although they are generally not long-lasting. The symptoms can vary widely depending upon which muscle is affected and what is causing the spasms.
If a spasm occurs in a muscle due to overuse, it is noticed by a sudden onset of pain and often the muscle will bulge under the skin. Another type of spasm occurs in the smooth muscles of areas like your abdomen. Those are also sudden, but can last much longer. The muscle groups most commonly effected are in the legs, arms and abdomen, although muscle spasms can occur in any muscle.
Muscle Spasms Characteristics
Muscle spasms can occur with any person of any age and at any time. Spasms can be as small as a slight muscle twitch or much stronger with severe pain.
They can occur in any muscle, but are most common in feet, legs, hand, arms, abdomen and along the ribcage. Sometimes muscle spasm occurs in your back as a type of protection for your spine or as a signal that an injury has occurred (x).
Muscle spasms most often occur as a tightened muscle, or group of muscles, that is often visible as a bulging knot and may even have visible spasming.
Causes of Muscle Spasms
What causes muscle spasms? Well, many different factors. Overuse is one of the most common causes of muscle spasms. Heat combined with excessive use can cause heat cramps, which are particularly common for athletes and construction workers.
Muscle spasms in leg and thigh muscles can be very common at night. Routine activities can also cause muscle spasms simply by overuse. Moreover, adding new exercises to your routine can also cause muscle spasms, especially if you add too much too quickly.
Dehydration and loss of electrolytes such as sodium and potassium, magnesium and calcium is something else to consider. Often, as we age, we tend to avoid drinking liquids at night to keep ourselves from having to get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. However, this can result in dehydration, which leads to muscle spasms (x).
Holding the same position for a lengthy period of time can also cause muscle spasms to occur.
Muscle spasms are generally harmless, but can sometimes be caused by an underlying condition, such as:
- Lack of blood supply caused by atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis causes narrowing of the arteries, which restricts blood flow to muscles.
- Compressed nerves from a spinal injury.
- Cold temperatures restrict blood flow by causing arteries to constrict.
- Depleted minerals such as electrolytes that enable muscles to relax.
Additional Risk Factors
Leg spasms are the most common site for spasms and are likely to occur more frequently as you age. Women are more likely to experience nighttime spasms (x).
The added weight gain during pregnancy can cause muscles to become weary from overuse. Also, loss of fluid and minerals to your fetus can make muscle spasms more likely.
Added weight can cause your muscles to become overworked.
Athletes often work their muscles very hard and must be sure to properly rest muscles between workouts to avoid a buildup of lactic acid, which can cause muscle spasms (x).
Certain medications are known to cause muscle spasms. These include medications used to treat high blood pressure, heart disease and cholesterol, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as many others (x).
Night (nocturnal) leg cramps most often occur after you’ve gone to bed and are usually caused by muscle fatigue and nerve damage. The elderly and pregnant women are most at risk for night leg cramps, although conditions such as kidney failure and diabetic nerve damage can also cause them. Some diuretics have been known to cause night leg cramps (x).
Muscle Spasms Remedies and Supplements
You’re probably wondering at this point how to treat muscle spasms. There are several things you can do to not only treat spasms, but also prevent them.
The first thing you should do when you have a muscle spasm occur is stop whatever activity or movement seems to be triggering the spasm. Then stretch the affected muscle and gently massage while holding the stretch. Continue holding the stretch until the spasm stops. After it has stopped, use heat to help loosen a tight, tense muscle and cold to soothe soreness (x).
Some people may only experience muscle spasms on rare occasions, but others may experience them more frequently. In addition to staying hydrated and incorporating regular stretching into your routine, you may find relief with certain supplements as a natural preventative measure.
Supplements for muscle health that you may find beneficial include:
Often when muscle spasms occur, it is due to a deficiency in calcium and magnesium. Magnesium should be taken with calcium. Excessive amounts can cause gastrointestinal problems, muscle weakness, low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat and respiratory problems. If you’ve experienced kidney issues in the past, you should check with your doctor prior to taking magnesium.
Calcium should be taken in 2,400 mg doses once or twice daily. If you’re already taking a product that contains calcium or have dealt with kidney stones in the past, you should check with your doctor before taking a calcium supplement. Calcium in excessive amounts can cause irregular heartbeat, headaches, upset stomach and frequent urination.
Loss of sodium and potassium usually occurs when we sweat. Excessive sweating can lead to an imbalance and cause nerves to become overly sensitive. Potassium should be taken in no more than 100 mg doses daily. Too much potassium over time can be fatal. Excess potassium can cause flatulence and upset stomach. You should check with your doctor if you’ve had kidney problems or have been diagnosed with diabetes. Do not take potassium if you’re pregnant or nursing. Some people have allergic reactions to potassium supplements.
Curcumin is an anti-inflammatory present in turmeric, cinnamon and ginger. Curcumin should be taken in one dose of 1,000 mg per day. Sensitive stomachs may experience discomfort when first introducing curcumin. If you have an allergy to ginger, check with your doctor prior to using curcumin supplements. Pregnant women and those with blood-clotting disorders or are taking blood thinners should avoid this supplement.
Chamomile has been used for hundreds of years to treat a number of ailments. It contains 36 flavonoids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. Do not take chamomile if you are allergic to ragweed. Chamomile can cause drowsiness. If you experience drowsiness, do not drive or operate heavy machinery. If you are pregnant or nursing, you should consult your doctor first.
Cayenne pepper is a natural muscle relaxer due to the capsaicin it contains. You can add it to foods, take it in a capsule form or use it as a cream. When used as a cream you can apply it directly to the affected area. Cayenne pepper extract should be taken in 500 mg doses one to three times per day with 8 ounces of water, at least. It can cause mild heartburn or acid reflux. You can try to take with meals or in capsule form to reduce this. If you are pregnant or nursing, be sure to check with your doctor before using this supplement. Do not take within two weeks of surgery as it can increase bleeding.
Note: If you experience unusually severe pain, spasms do not seem to be associated with an obvious cause, occur frequently, of are combined with swelling, redness, other skin changes or muscle weakness, you should see a doctor (x).
The Bottom Line
Muscle spasms can happen to anyone and can occur in any muscle, but are most common in legs, arms, hands, feet and back. Thankfully, there are plenty of natural remedies, treatments and supplements that you can use to treat and prevent them. As always, remember to hydrate and stretch regularly to avoid spasms.
Graduate of Longwood University in Virginia. Part-time sports journalist covering the Vegas Golden Knights.