You’ve probably experienced a muscle spasm before, whether it occurred during a strenuous workout or while you were lying in bed in the middle of the night. These spasms happen when one or more muscle involuntarily contracts, causing temporary pain and muscle tightness. While the cause of muscle spasms is not always known, there are certain things that are believed to increase your likelihood of experiencing them.
A balance of certain minerals is required for the normal contraction of muscle tissue, and if you have a deficiency of calcium, potassium, magnesium, or sodium, you may be more likely to experience muscle cramps. Certain medications—especially diuretics—can deplete these minerals. If you have a hard time getting the recommended amount of these minerals in your diet, there are supplements available at most pharmacies.
Overuse of a muscle through exercise or repetitive activities causes the muscle cell to run out of energy and involuntarily contract. Overuse is more likely to occur if you fail to stretch before working out, hold a muscle in the same position for a long period of time, or exercise strenuously in the heat.
Carbohydrates are converted to glycogen, which fuels your muscles. If your glycogen supply becomes depleted during a workout, your muscles no longer have the fuel they need to properly relax and contract, which increases your chances of experiencing a muscle spasm.
The jury’s still out on whether dehydration causes muscle spasms: some studies have found that drinking more water helps prevent cramps, while others have found no link between fluid levels and cramps. Those who think that dehydration can lead to muscle spasms suggest that fluid outside the cells becomes depleted, which forces nerve endings closer together and causes them to become hyper-excited.
The nerves in your spine can become compressed, especially if you are standing or walking for a long time. This nerve compression may produce cramp-like pain in your legs.
If your arteries are constricted, it is more difficult for an adequate supply of blood and nutrients to reach the muscles in your extremities (e.g. legs and feet), making it more likely that you’ll get a muscle cramp. There are certain medical conditions that can cause poor circulation, including atherosclerosis, a condition in which plaque builds up in your arteries.
Relieving Muscle Cramps
Muscle spasms are never fun, but fortunately, they typically don’t last for more than a minute or two. After you get a cramp, you can help relax the muscle by stretching it, massaging it, putting an ice pack on it, or putting heat on it (e.g. taking a hot shower or applying a heat pack).
Muscle spasms usually aren’t a cause for concern, but you should let your doctor know if you experience them on a regular basis, as this may be a sign of an underlying medical condition. Your doctor may recommend that you treat your muscle spasms with an over-the-counter muscle relaxer, although they may also prescribe a medication, such as the muscle relaxants cyclobenzaprine or carisoprodol, if over-the-counter treatment isn’t effective. For more information about muscle spasms including management and a list of muscle relaxers, visit our Muscle Spasms Conditions Page.