What are muscle spasms (muscle cramps)?
Otherwise known as muscle cramps, spasms occur when your muscle involuntary and forcibly contracts uncontrollably and can’t relax. These are very common and can affect any of your muscles. They can involve part or all of a muscle, or several muscles in a group. The most common sites for muscle spasms are the thighs, calves, feet, hands, arms and abdomen. When occurring in the calves, especially, such cramps are known as “charley horses.” A leg cramp that happens at night when you’re at rest or asleep is called a “nocturnal leg cramp.”
What do muscle spasms (muscle cramps) feel like?
Muscle spasms range in intensity from mild, uncomfortable twitches to significant discomfort to intense, severe pain. The spastic muscle may feel harder than normal to the touch and/or appear visibly distorted. It may twitch. Spasms typically last from seconds to 15 minutes or longer, and may recur multiple times before going away.
How do I stop a muscle spasm?
There’s no pill or injection that instantly relieves muscle spasms, so the best thing you can do is stretch your affected muscle and massage it. If it’s in your leg, get up and walk around. Try applying ice or heat (take a warm bath or use a heating pad).
Sometimes a muscle spasm can be prevented – stopped before it ever happens.
Who gets muscle spasms?
Muscle spasms can occur at any time to anyone. Whether you are old, young, sedentary or active, you may develop a muscle spasm. It can happen when you walk, sit, perform any exercise or sleep. Some individuals are prone to muscle spasms and get them regularly with any physical exertion.
How common are muscle spasms?
Muscle spasms (muscle cramps) are common. They can happen to anyone and are very normal.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes muscle spasms (muscle cramps)?
“Idiopathic” means that the exact cause is unknown, and that’s the case with muscle spasms. Some experts believe that one of more of the following may be to blame in most cases:
- Not enough stretching.
- Muscle fatigue.
- Exercising in the heat.
- Depletion of electrolytes (salts and minerals like potassium, magnesium and calcium in your body).
- Involuntary nerve discharges.
- Restriction in the blood supply.
- Too much high-intensity exercise.
Possible causes for nocturnal leg cramps (leg cramps at night), specifically, include:
- Sitting for long periods of time.
- Overusing the muscles.
- Standing or working on concrete floors.
- Sitting improperly.
What are the symptoms of muscle spasms (muscle cramps)?
Muscle spasms can feel like a stitch in the side or be agonizingly painful. You may see a twitch under your skin and it may feel hard to the touch. Spasms are involuntary. The muscles contract and it takes treatment and time for them to relax. They are very common, especially in older adults and athletes.
If the muscle spasm is severe, happens frequently, responds poorly to treatment and is not related to obvious causes, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. The spasms could be related to underlying factors.
Diagnosis and Tests
How are muscle spasms diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will need to know, in addition to your medical history and medications, information about:
- How bad the pain is.
- When do the muscle spasms happen (e.g. at night? After exercising?).
- How long the cramps last.
- What the muscle spasms feel like.
- When the muscle spasms started.
- Any other symptoms you’re experiencing.
Management and Treatment
How are muscle spasms (muscle cramps) treated?
When a spasm strikes, you might be exercising, simply sitting or even sleeping in the middle of the night. If only there was a magical injection that could instantly relieve your pain! There are, however, five steps you can take to try to get rid of the spasm:
- Stretch the affected area.
- Massage the affected area with your hands or a massage roller.
- Stand up and walk around.
- Apply heat or ice. Put an ice pack together or apply a heating pad, or take a nice warm bath.
- Take painkillers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen.
What vitamins may help with muscle spasms (muscle cramps)?
Some experts believe that a daily vitamin B12 complex can help.
When should I get my muscle spasms treated at the emergency room?
Typically, the muscle spasm shouldn’t last very long and, even though it can be very painful, it’s usually not considered an emergency. However, if the pain becomes unbearable, or if the spasms start after you touch a substance that could be poisonous or infectious, go to the ER.
How can I prevent muscle spasms (muscle cramps)?
Muscle spasms are difficult to prevent. They can be unpredictable. They can happen at any time. There are risk factors you can’t avoid, like your age. However, there are some reported methods that might be helpful when it comes to overcoming those risk factors and preventing the muscle spasms:
- Perform flexibility exercises on a regular basis.
- Work towards better overall fitness.
- Stretch your muscles regularly. Do this especially for those most prone to muscle spasms.
- Drink fluids frequently. Choose water and avoid alcohol and caffeine.
- Avoid exercising in hot weather.
- Wear shoes that fit you properly.
- Keep your weight at a healthy range. Experiment with mild exercise right before bed to prevent nocturnal leg cramps.
- Avoid medications that may cause muscle spasms as a side effect.
- To prevent leg cramps, use pillows to keep your toes pointed upwards if you sleep on your back. If you sleep on your chest, hang your feet over the end of the bed.
- Stretch your muscles before you go to sleep. When you sleep, keep the sheets and blankets loose around your legs.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I’ve been diagnosed with muscle spasms?
Muscle spasms can worsen and happen more frequently with age. Be sure to use prevention and treatment techniques to increase your chances of being able to manage the muscle spasms.
How do I take care of myself?
You and your healthcare provider should come up with a treatment plan together. Have a prevention plan and a plan for what to do when a muscle spasm hits. Do the following every day:
- Exercise (but not in intense heat). If you get nocturnal leg cramps, do some walking before you go to sleep.
- Stretch. Stretch frequently including before and after you exercise and before you go to sleep.
- Purchase sturdy shoes.
- Drink plenty of water each day. Stay away from caffeine and alcohol.
- Take all prescribed vitamins and medications such as muscle relaxants.
- Prepare your bed space by keeping a heating pad and massage roller nearby.
When should I see my healthcare provider about my muscle spasms (muscle cramps)?
See your healthcare provider if the spasms are unbearably painful, happen frequently or last for a long time. Also, talk to your healthcare provider right away if you have the following symptoms in addition:
- Significant pain.
- Swelling or numbness in the leg.
- Changes in the skin of your leg.
- Waking up over and over again with leg cramps.
- If your leg cramps are stopping you from getting enough sleep.
- If you have fluid abnormalities or electrolyte imbalances that you’re aware of.
See your healthcare provider immediately if you’re concerned that your muscle spasms are a symptom of an underlying serious medical condition.
What questions should I ask my healthcare provider about muscle spasms?
- Do you recommend that I see a physical therapist, sleep specialist, massage therapist or other specialist?
- Do you think that my muscle spasms are a symptom of a disease?
- Can you show me the best exercises I can do to stretch my muscles?
- How can I help my child when they have a muscle spasm?
- Can you show me the best massage techniques I can use to help with my muscle spasms?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
You don’t have to “just live with” muscle spasms! They may be unpredictable, but there are a few steps you can take not only to prevent them but to soothe them in the moment. Contact your healthcare provider and have a conversation about your concerns.
Don’t let muscle cramps keep you from having a healthy exercise routine and don’t let them interfere with your sleep! Remember – listen to your healthcare provider.