It’s happened to the best of us! You’re falling asleep and all of a sudden... charley horse! You’re instantly wide awake, in pain, and trying to figure out how to get your calf to relax. What you are experiencing is a muscle spasm, or cramp, and unfortunately, they can happen in any muscle within the body.
Let’s take a look at what exactly a muscle spasm is and how it can be prevented.
What is a Muscle Spasm or Cramp
The terms muscle spasm and muscle cramp are oftentimes used interchangeably. However. the National Center for Biotechnology Information defines a muscle cramp as “an episodic, involuntary, painful contraction of a muscle,” while a muscle spasm is “a more encompassing term referring to any involuntary muscle contraction.” In other words, both a muscle spasm and muscle cramp are involuntary, unintentional contractions of one or more muscles.
The Medical University of Southern Carolina explain the difference between a muscle cramp and muscle spasm. “If the contraction is sustained for more than several seconds it moves from being a muscle in spasm to a muscle cramp. In other words the process begins as a muscle spasm which is a tightening of the muscle and if it persists it becomes a cramp.”
Most of us have experienced a cramp in either the foot or calf before. Although most common in the lower extremities, cramps or spasms can occur in any muscle of the body. Other common areas include the hands, abdomen, and rib cage.
What Causes Muscle Spasms
A number of things can cause your muscles to go into spasm. Some of the most common causes of muscle spasm include:
Dehydration – The first reported muscle spasms were reported over 100 years ago by miners working in hot and humid conditions. When the body is depleted of water, cramps occur. Warm weather, humidity, excessive sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea can all lead to dehydration (and muscle cramps). Common signs of dehydration include headaches, dry mouth, thirst, dizziness, and dry skin.
Low in Nutrients – Low levels of magnesium, calcium, potassium, sodium, and electrolytes can cause cramping. These nutrients are key to keeping your body balanced and allowing your muscles to relax properly. Keep foods such as bananas, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, yogurt, and nuts in your diet!
Medications – As we have all heard about and read before, medications have different side effects. The medications used to treat some commonly known medical conditions are known to cause muscle spasms or cramps. According to WebMD, some of these medications include Tasmar (used to treat Parkinson’s disease), Donepezil (used to treat Alzheimer’s disease), Raloxifene (used to treat osteoporosis), and albuterol (used to treat asthma).
Vigorous Activity – We’ve all seen an athlete cramp up in the middle of game and their trainer running to help them stretch. But, why? Vigorous activity leads to muscle fatigue and muscle fatigue leads to muscle spasms. If we are overexerting ourselves during a workout, our muscles can be depleted of oxygen which leads to a buildup of waste within the body and spasms. Vigorous activity goes hand-in-hand with dehydration and nutrient imbalances. If working out in hot or humid weather, the body more quickly loses the nutrients it needs to remain spasm-less.
Medical Conditions – There are also several medical conditions that can produce some feeling of muscle cramping in the legs. For example, lumbar stenosis can include nerve compression or neuorogenic claudication and that can produce the feeling of cramping in the legs. Also, vascular claudifcation, the narrowing of arteries, can produce the feeling of muscle cramping during exercise.
How to Prevent Spasms
After explaining what causes muscles spasms, it seems pretty self-explanatory what can be done to prevent muscles spasms from occurring.
Drink plenty of water – Stay hydrated, especially during the warmer months. Many youth sports teams use the summer to condition for the upcoming season. It is crucial to be getting plenty of water to avoid cramping & injury, including rehydrating post-activity.
Get the appropriate nutrients – Be sure to eat a balanced meal that incorporate magnesium, calcium, and potassium. This goes beyond drinking an electrolyte beverage after a practice. Incorporate naturally occurring forms of these items into your diet.
Stretch – Although we live busy lives, it’s important to take the time to stretch before physical activity. Gone are the days of being able to jump right in to a practice at full capacity. Take the 10-15 minutes prior to activity to get your dynamic stretch in. And it doesn't stop there! After you have completed your activity, take some time to static stretch.
Muscle spasms can be extremely uncomfortable! If you try the above things to prevent spasms from occurring without success or if you continue to suffer from cramping or muscle spasms for an extended period of time, we highly recommend consulting with your physician. If you are experiencing spasms as the result of any injury, we would love to help you through that! Contact either of our offices to schedule an appointment with one of our Physical Therapists.
Lawrence Z. Stern and Charles Bernick for National Center for Biotechnology Information, "Chapter 53 Muscle Cramps," https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK376/
MUSC Health,"Muscle Cramps & Spasms," https://muschealth.org/medical-services/geriatrics-and-aging/healthy-aging/cramps-and-spasms
WebdMD, "What medications can cause muscle cramps?" https://www.webmd.com/pain-management/qa/what-medications-can-cause-muscle-cramps