Muscle Spasms and Cramps
Updated: Feb 10, 2018
Understanding what muscles need to function correctly can help you learn how to keep them working at their best. Healthy skeletal muscles seldom cramp.
Muscles are made of groups of tiny thread-like fibers. When they contract, they produce movement in the body. The brain coordinates and controls this muscle movement through a network of nerves. When the body is functioning normally, muscles contract in an organized fashion. This allows the heart to beat, the lungs to expel air, the digestive system to process food, and the joints of the skeleton to move and bend.
In order for a skeletal muscle to work properly, it needs several things, including:
Input from a nerve
Calcium for muscle contraction
Magnesium for proper nerve function and muscle relaxation
Sodium and potassium for transmission of nerve impulses and muscle contraction
ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) to supply its energy
Protein to grow
Adequate blood supply
Healthy tendons to connect it to bone
Intervals of rest
Occasionally, a muscle does not behave normally. A sudden, uncontrolled muscle contraction can sometimes occur. The muscle is unable to relax. This is called a muscle spasm. A prolonged muscle spasm becomes a cramp. Muscle spasms are painful, and can occur at the worst possible times. They can involve a single muscle, or a group of muscles. Muscles can painfully contract for a handful of seconds, or the spasm may last several minutes. Sometimes the affected area can contract so severely that the spasm can be clearly seen, temporarily contorting the bones and joints of the skeleton. A muscle cramp will typically feel hard to the touch. In some cases, it may even twitch. A severe spasm can damage the tiny thread-like fibers inside the muscle, causing a muscle strain.
Common locations of muscle spasms:
Calves (gastrocnemius muscle and soleus muscle)
Back of the thighs (hamstring)
Front of the thighs (quadriceps)
Arch of the foot (abductor pollicis longus)
Arms (flexor digitorum and brachioradialis)
Hands (palmar interosseus and abductor pollicis brevis)
Ribcage (intercostal muscles)
Muscle spasms can affect people of all ages. Children, teens, adults, and active seniors can all experience painful, contracted muscles. Individuals over the age of 75 tend to get them more often. Runners and athletes are also more at risk, especially if muscle groups are overused.
What can cause muscle spasms:
Muscle overuse – Overusing a muscle can damage muscle fibers. It can also cause inflammation. Extended workouts and activities which cause undue muscle exertion can cause injury on a cellular level.
Fatigue – When a muscle is fatigued, it doesn’t perform properly. Rest between exercise and activities can prevent fatigue and refresh muscle tissue.
Dehydration – When dehydrated, your body becomes more susceptible to muscle spasms which can lead to cramping.
Electrolyte imbalance – Proper nutrition provides your body with the tools and fuel it needs to function efficiently. Muscle spasms can be caused by an electrolyte imbalance. Electrolytes are gained through eating and drinking, and lost through sweat and also through the digestive tract. An electrolyte imbalance can be caused by poor diet, recent illness (such as the flu), or chronic health conditions (such as kidney disease). An electrolyte imbalance can also occur as a side effect from certain medications.
Skeletal misalignment – Muscles follow a path across joints in the skeleton. When the skeleton is misaligned, then the muscle has to work harder to move the joint. Bone misalignments and skeletal asymmetry can alter the angle of muscle groups, resulting in muscle inefficiency, inflammation, and fatigue.
Not changing positions enough – Sitting in one position for long periods (such as at the computer) can cause muscle tightness along with reduced blood flow. For muscles to remain healthy, they must be stretched and used regularly.
Side effect of medication – Pharmaceuticals (such as cholesterol medications, diuretics, asthma medications, and certain antibiotics) can cause muscle cramps. Check your medications for a list of possible side effects.
Chronic health conditions – Medical conditions (such as Multiple Sclerosis, osteoarthritis, diabetic neuropathy, etc.) can affect how muscles function. Contact your treating medical physician if you have concerns about this.
Ways to prevent muscle spasms:
Stretch – If you suffer from leg cramps at night, be sure to do some gentle stretching before bed. If you experience arm or hand cramps while at the office, do some stretching before work, being sure to target the muscles that are most frequently affected.
Check your diet – Eat well balanced, healthy meals. Limit over-processed foods.
Footwear – Wear comfortable shoes with good support. Discard shoes that are too tight or that have worn out or uneven soles.
Medications – Check with your family doctor. Be mindful of possible side effects.
Uncross your legs – Try to avoid crossing your legs for prolonged periods.
Avoid sitting on an uneven surface – Sitting on uneven surfaces can affect the alignment of the hips, legs, and pelvis. Be aware of sitting in awkward positions (such as sitting with your leg folded beneath you, sitting on the ground, or sitting on worn furniture). Avoid sitting with a thick wallet in the back pocket. Check the seat in your car to ensure it’s at the proper position and angle to fit your arms and legs.
Use a golf ball – Gently roll a golf ball along the arch of the foot to sooth tired muscles along the bottom of the foot.
Chiropractic treatment – A chiropractor can check your spine and skeleton for misalignments which can affect the angle, symmetry, and length of muscles. Chiropractic treatments can also benefit the nervous system which is important for the regulation of healthy muscle contraction.
One of the best ways to prevent muscle spasms is to keep a healthy lifestyle through proper amounts of exercise, nutrition, and rest. The body is designed to heal itself and to perform efficiently if its needs are met. By understanding how muscles work and what they require to function correctly, you can take steps to protect them and to keep them healthy.