A muscle spasm is an involuntary contraction of a muscle, producing intense pain deep in the muscle. Often called a muscle "cramp" by those who experience them, spasms are caused by overexertion, injury or extended sitting in one position. Muscle spasms can also be caused by a nutritional deficiency, or may be a sign of a more serious health concern.
Muscle spasms typically happen after a muscle has been used heavily and has been stretched or pulled in one or more directions. The muscle tries to regain its intended size and shape, causing a painful spasm.
But more than just physical factors can cause spasms. Anxiety, panic, tension and anger can also impact the nervous system, causing spasms, muscle tension and stiffness. This pain is often experienced in the neck and shoulders, and sometimes in the lower back.
Spasms cause the muscle to contract, which means that it shortens. Gentle and slow stretching often provides immediate relief. If you're prone to spasms in certain muscles, add specific stretching of those areas to your fitness routine, and you should see a reduction of spasms.
Heat & massage
Muscle spasms can also be treated with a hot bath or application of a heating pad. Like stretching, heat improves blood flow. However, some health-care professionals recommend ice immediately after the spasm is experienced. Find out what your provider recommends based on your specific symptoms.
Massaging the area during the spasm can also help increase blood flow and alleviate pain. Massage therapy can be an ongoing treatment for spasms and knots.
Failing to warm up properly and stretch before workouts can cause spasms. Be sure to get the blood flowing to your whole body, especially the area where you experience spasms. If you're prone to calf spasms, for example, make sure you warm up that area and include gentle stretching to take the muscle through its range of motion. Stand with one foot far in front of the other and press your rear heel down to the floor; hold for 20 seconds. You'll feel the stretch in the belly of the calf muscle. Repeat this stretch after your workout, too.
If quads are where you experience muscle spasms, spend five to 10 minutes on a cycle or the elliptical machine to get your legs warm. Make sure you start out slowly. Then stretch thoroughly by pulling your right ankle to your right glute and holding it for at least 20 seconds; repeat on the other side. As with any area prone to spasms, make sure you stretch it thoroughly after your workout as well.
Lack of proper hydration can also contribute to spasms. Make sure to get plenty of water to prevent and treat muscle spasms. The Institute of Medicine recommends men get about 3 liters, or roughly 13 cups of fluids a day; women should get 2.2 liters, or about 9 cups a day. You'll need more if you sweat excessively. A good gauge is your urine. If it's colorless or just slightly yellow, you're probably well hydrated.
Low levels of minerals such as potassium, calcium and magnesium are associated with muscle spasms. Potassium deficiency, in particular, is linked to muscle spasms in long-distance runners and other endurance athletes. Potassium stores are depleted during endurance activities, so be sure to replace what you use. If mineral deficiency is the cause of your muscle spasms, you'll need to boost your intake of foods rich in these nutrients. In some instances, supplements may be advised, but check with your doctor first.
Most muscle spasms aren't serious and can be treated by following the above guidelines. But if you experience frequent cramps, they could indicate blood clots or another potentially serious health problem. To rule out these issues, make sure you talk with your doctor.
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