Muscle Spasm

What is Muscle Spasm?

Muscle spasm is a symptom characterized by involuntary contraction of any muscle in the body. It can be the muscles of the head, the back, the abdomen but more frequently, the extremities. It is also known as muscle twitch or muscle cramps.

What are the signs and symptoms of muscle spasms?

Muscle spasms may manifest as cramping pain and inability to move the affected part. The affected body part may feel hard to touch. Sometimes, the muscle can be visibly seen twitching, distorted or moving on its own, lasting for several seconds to minutes. It can also manifest as pain in the neck, nape, back and head causing body aches. Spasms in the abdomen may cause abdominal pain. Sometimes, it may be associated with grasping, walking or with pins and needle sensations.

Muscle spasm can happen in a normal people; it can also be a part of an underlying health condition. In healthy individuals, the usual causes of muscle spasm are stress and anxiety. It may also occur among people who failed to do warm up before an intensive exercise, sports or other vigorous activities. Very hot conditions during exercise may also elicit symptoms. Dehydration and depletion of electrolytes also cause muscle spasms. It may also happen at night while asleep. This is known as nocturnal leg cramps.

Muscle spasms may occur secondary to an underlying disease, most especially in cases where nerve damage is present. This is because muscles are controlled and stimulated by nerves. Examples of these are those seen in nerve compression in disc herniation, or motor neuron damage in the spinal cord such as in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

The presence of inadequate blood supply to an affected area, such as the legs, due to narrowing of the blood vessels caused by diseases of the blood vessels is another cause of muscle cramps. Obesity can also cause muscle spasms by causing strain to the core muscles of the trunk and neck.

How do you know if the muscle spasm is dangerous or not?

Among healthy people, muscle spasm occurs alone and is not associated with other signs or symptoms. It also disappears most of the time after the underlying cause has been resolved. For example, muscle cramping after intense exercise or dehydration usually disappears after a period of rest and hydration.

On the other hand, muscle spasm associated with an underlying health condition is usually persistent and oftentimes, progressive. Other signs or symptoms usually accompany muscle spasm. For instance, in patients with disc herniation, a condition where the nerves in the back are impinged by the bones, muscle spasm is persistent and often accompanied by numbness or weakness in the leg.

How are muscle spasms diagnosed?

Diagnosis of muscle spasm is clinical. Muscle spasms can manifest in various forms such as headache, low back pain and cramping of the legs. The attending physician would usually ask for eliciting or aggravating factors such as exercise, fatigue, anxiety, stress and dehydration. The persistence, frequency and duration of spasms must also be noted. Other accompanying signs and symptoms must be disclosed as more serious conditions or diseases are excluded. Examples of these are the presence of thinning or shrinkage of the affected muscle, paralysis of the limbs, presence of numbness, impairment in pain and temperature sensations, and gait imbalance.

In patients wherein underlying diseases are suspected, additional laboratory and diagnostic examinations may be needed to confirm the diagnosis. Blood tests and chemistry are requested depending on the findings on clinical examination. In cases where impingement of nerves in the back are suspected, doing a spinal imaging like an MRI may help. Electromyography and nerve conduction studies which are tests for nerves and muscles may also be requested by the attending physician if diseases of these parts are entertained. In some patients, muscle biopsy may be warranted.

How are muscle spasms treated?

Addressing the underlying cause usually relieves the spasm. This includes the following: alleviating the patient’s stress and anxiety; drinking a lot of water in cases of dehydration and intense heat; stretching and gently massage the affected part; resting after a period of intense physical activity; and application of heating pad or ice on the affected muscles. Taking muscle relaxants and pain relievers may also help alleviate the pain and symptoms associated. However, if muscle spasm continues to persist, it is recommended that the patient consult a doctor to rule out more debilitating causes.

How are muscle spasms treated?

To prevent muscle spasms or cramps, the following measures can be applied:

  • Do warm up exercises before intensive physical activity or sports
  • Stretching exercise regularly and before going to bed
  • Drink a lot of fluid frequently and avoid or minimize intake of caffeine and alcohol
  • Avoid exercises in hot environment Wear shoes that fit properly
  • Maintain a good posture for the back and neck
  • Maintain a healthy weight with proper diet and exercise