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.”
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.
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.
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.
Muscle spasms (muscle cramps) are common. They can happen to anyone and are very normal.
“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:
Possible causes for nocturnal leg cramps (leg cramps at night), specifically, include:
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.
Your healthcare provider will need to know, in addition to your medical history and medications, information about:
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:
Some experts believe that a daily vitamin B12 complex can help.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
See your healthcare provider immediately if you’re concerned that your muscle spasms are a symptom of an underlying serious medical condition.
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.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/11/2021.