The Ins and Outs of Muscle Spasms: What They Are and What Causes Them
The body houses an intricate system of chemicals, tissues, and processes, all of which work in a coordinated fashion. When one or more of these systems suffer, any number of problems can develop, including muscle spasms.
Anywhere from 650 to 800 muscles can be found in the human body, though the exact number remains unknown.
Each of these muscles relies on the body’s central nervous system to maintain normal functioning.
On top of this, normal muscle function relies heavily on the materials muscles have to work with in terms of available minerals and nutrients.
Considering all that goes into making a muscle work, it’s no surprise that muscle spasms happen to most everyone.
Getting to know how muscles work and the types of conditions that affect their functional health can go a long way towards preventing muscle spasms from happening.
What Is A Muscle Spasm?
Just about everyone will experience a muscle spasm at some point in their lives. Like any other abnormal bodily function, a muscle spasm is the body’s way of letting a person know that something’s wrong or off balance.
While they’re not usually serious, muscle spasms can be painful, though typically short-lived.
Activities that strain or overuse a muscle can result in spasming. The spasm can also result from muscle weakness, pain sensations, injury or an underlying disorder, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
In effect, a muscle spasm can take one of two forms: an involuntary muscle contraction or an involuntary tightening of the muscles.
Since the body houses all different types of muscles, muscle spasms vary in intensity and a great many may even go unnoticed.
What’s The Difference Between a Muscle Spasm and a Muscle Cramp?
The terms muscle spasm and muscle cramp are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually two different things.
Whereas muscle spasms tend to be short in duration, an actual muscle cramp can develop when a spasm persists. Muscle cramps can last anywhere from a few seconds to as long as 15 minutes or longer.
Muscle cramps, also called “Charley horses,” usually develop in the legs, such as in the calves, hamstrings, and quadriceps.
Intensity-wise, a cramp can range from mild and inconvenient to extremely painful to the point of being incapacitating.
Cramped muscles tend to be firm to the touch and actually look knotted or bunched up compared to muscle spasms while a spasming muscle may appear to twitch or throb.
How Do Muscles Work?
Normal muscle movement depends on the health of the muscle and the nerve that communicates with it.
The nerve transmits messages from the brain, telling the muscle when to contract and when to relax. As long the muscle and nerve are functioning normally, all will go as expected.
Muscle movement starts when muscle fibers shorten or tighten. Muscle fibers slide against one another, which causes them to contract.
Messages sent from the brain are nerve signals that trigger chemical interactions within the cells that make up the muscle. The two chemicals involved in this process are magnesium and calcium.
Magnesium creates the conditions that allow nerve signal transmissions to communicate with the cell. It does this by regulating the chemical processes that allow the signal to cross the cell’s membrane.
A nerve signal from the brain causes storage sites within muscle cells to release calcium. Once calcium levels reach a certain point, the muscle fibers contract.
When the signal from the brain stops, these same storage sites reabsorb calcium materials.
At this point, magnesium’s effects work to return muscle cells to a relaxed state.
Overall, healthy muscle functioning depends on a delicate balance of magnesium and calcium in the cells.
What Are The Different Types of Muscles?
Voluntary muscles are controlled by a person’s will via the brain’s cerebral cortex. This muscle group includes the body’s skeletal muscles, which are all connected to bones either directly or by a tendon. Muscles in the arms, back, face and legs all fall within this group.
According to Indiana University, voluntary muscles appear as striped fibers made up of dark and light cells.
The dark-colored fibers contain high concentrations of myoglobin, a protein that helps regulate oxygen supplies, while the light-colored fibers have smaller concentrations.
As with all muscle types, voluntary muscles rely on the bloodstream to deliver healthy levels of nutrients, such as oxygen and glucose for normal functioning.
Most people have experienced spasms within one or more skeletal muscles at some point in their life.
Involuntary muscles are under the control of the brainstem, which is the part of the brain that’s directly connected to the spinal cord.
Unlike voluntary muscles, a person has little to no control over this muscle group.
These muscles regulate essential bodily functions, such as blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate.
Involuntary muscles have a smooth texture that’s designed work within the body’s hollow structures, such as the arteries, the intestines, the esophagus and the uterus.
Commonly referred to as smooth muscle, these muscles typically encircle a hollow area.
When a smooth muscle contracts, it squeezes the space it surrounds. Not surprisingly, muscle spasms that affect involuntary muscles can cause real problems when spasms happen on a recurring basis.
Cardiac Muscle Tissue
Cardiac muscle tissue, also known as the myocardium, is a specialized form of muscle found only in the heart.
It’s specifically designed to pump blood throughout the body on a non-stop basis.
Compared to other types of muscles, cardiac tissue has incredible strength and endurance in terms of its ability to contract over and over again throughout the course of a lifetime.
Cardiac muscles also maintain a rhythm of its own, which allows all the muscles in the heart to contract in a coordinated fashion.
Muscle spasms within the heart tissue can occur when one of the arteries that supply blood to the heart starts to spasm.
What Are the Different Types of Muscle Spasms?
While most all the body’s muscles work in the same way, different types of muscle spasms can result depending on the muscle groups involved.
In general, there are three main types of muscle spasms:
Tics tend to be the least harmful of spasms, though tics can be annoying when they occur on a repeated basis.
These types of spasms usually affect groups of muscles, such as those that make up the face, eyes, shoulders, and legs. Usually short-lived, tics are rapid, repeating, uncontrollable spasms.
As mentioned above, cramps develop when a muscle spasm persists. The muscles involved over-contract or shorten to the point of causing pain.
Convulsions work in much the same way as seizures, causing repeated contracting and relaxing of the affected muscle regions.
This type of spasm last anywhere from a few seconds to a minute. Unlike tics and cramps, convulsions can cause severe pain.
What Causes Muscle Spasms?
Normal muscle function relies on a range of conditions with nerve health, nutrient supply, and a stable cell chemical makeup being three major factors.
Muscle spasms can develop whenever a person’s overall health, activities and/or surrounding environment place muscles at risk of strain or exhaustion.
Conditions that can cause muscle spasms include the following:
- Failing to warm-up or stretch muscles before exercising
- Injury involving the back, neck or spinal cord that causes nerves to become pinched
- Underlying medical conditions that disrupt the body’s normal chemical balance
- Menstrual cycling
- Muscle strain resulting from poor posture
- Poor dietary habits that include too much or too little salt, potassium or magnesium
- Over-exerting muscles when exercising
- Medications that cause excess water loss
- Heat exhaustion
- Calcium deficiency
- Poor blood Circulation
- Overexertion of muscles that results in fatigue, such as running a marathon
For a more in-depth look at how muscle spasms develop, check out this Youtube video entitled Why Do Muscles Spasm?”
How Do Muscle Spasms Develop?
A muscle spasm develops when communications between the brain and muscles is compromised. Conditions that may interfere with brain and muscle communications include:
- Low electrolyte levels
- Low supply of blood and nutrients to muscles
- Low water levels
- Damaged nerves
Electrolytes are minerals that conduct electricity when dissolved in water. Normal muscle function relies on a balanced supply of electrolytes, some of which include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphate.
These minerals help regulate nerve signal conduction along muscle cell walls, so low levels pose an increased risk for muscle spasm.
A low supply of blood and nutrients to a group of muscles can also cause spasms to develop.
The bloodstream delivers oxygen and electrolytes to the body’s muscles. With poor blood circulation, the materials needed to enable normal muscle function are lacking.
Since electrolytes require adequate amounts of water to conduct nerve signaling, dehydrated cell muscles can become hypersensitive. These conditions increase the likelihood of involuntary muscle spasms.
Damage to nerves may result from pinched or compressed nerves in the spinal column.
When this happens, nerve signals may become distorted, causing pain and spasms in the affected muscle.
Can Brain-Related Conditions Cause Muscle Spasms?
While abnormal nerve and muscle functioning play central roles in causing muscle spasms, certain types of brain disorders can also cause muscle spasms to occur.
In effect, any condition that disrupts the brain’s neurotransmitter processes can affect muscle functioning. Here are just a few conditions that fit the bill.
Stress and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety take a toll on the mind and body over time. A person’s ability to cope with daily life pressures not only depends on mental health but also the physical health of the body.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the wearing effects of stress and anxiety disrupt the brain’s chemical makeup, paving the way for physical problems (like muscle spasms) to develop.
The body’s voluntary muscle groups are directly tied to the sympathetic nervous system or SNS.
This system houses the mechanisms that regulate the body’s fight-or-flight response.
When a person perceives a threat, the areas of the body affected by the fight-or-flight response are flooded with stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenalin.
Conditions involving stress and anxiety cause the sympathetic nervous system to go into overdrive.
These conditions place an ongoing strain on the brain and body’s chemical balance.
This state of chemical imbalance inevitably disrupts muscle functions, making a person more susceptible to physical strain and injury.
Muscle tension is a common symptom of ongoing stress and anxiety. In effect, muscle tension can leave certain muscle groups in a semi-contracted state.
Over time, the risk of developing muscle spasms increases as the affected muscles undergo continued strain.
People struggling with anxiety symptoms often experience fatigue and are more likely to lead a fairly inactive lifestyle as a result.
Inactivity weakens the body’s muscles, which hampers the chemical activities that allow for normal muscle functioning. The potential for muscle spasms to develop is there.
Prolonged states of stress and anxiety also tend to deplete the body’s water levels, which further distorts nerve to muscle communications.
In like manner, high stress and anxiety levels deplete the body’s mineral and nutrient supplies at a faster rate than usual.
Dystonia, a neurological muscle disorder, results from abnormal functioning within the area of the brain known as the basal ganglia.
The basal ganglia help regulate coordination and movement so it interacts directly with the body’s voluntary or skeletal muscles.
The effects of dystonia cause uncontrollable movements, such as abnormal posturing, twisting, repetitive movements as well as muscle spasms.
Dystonia can affect any part of the body with varying symptoms depending on the area involved.
- Spasmodic torticollis – causes uncontrollable neck movements
- Meige syndrome – causes facial spams
- Limb dystonia – usually develops in the hands, but can also affect the arms, legs, and feet
- General dystonia – the whole body is affected
Depending on the extent of the condition and the part of the body affected, dystonia can greatly impair a person’s ability to function in daily life.
Are There Medical Conditions That Cause Muscle Spasms?
While there is any number of medical conditions that disrupt nerve to cell communications, here are just a few medical conditions that can bring on muscle spasms.
Every cell in the body contains iron in the form of hemoglobin, a protein material. Iron is an essential mineral because of the role it plays in helping the body produce red blood cells, the body’s oxygen carriers. When iron levels run low, the body’s cells become oxygen-deprived.
These conditions open the door for all types of problems to develop, including muscle spasms.
Since muscles need oxygen to function normally, a lack of oxygen increases the likelihood of pain, cramps and muscle spasms.
The body’s red blood cells also help remove waste materials and carbon dioxide from muscle tissue.
When an iron deficiency is present, toxins build up in muscles, which further increases the risk of developing muscle spasms.
Diabetes is a disease that develops when the body’s ability to produce insulin or respond to insulin is impaired.
Insulin, a material produced by the pancreas, helps blood cells metabolize glucose and produce energy.
Over time, the effects of diabetes can cause serious problems in the body’s nerves and muscles.
It’s not uncommon for people affected by diabetes to experience leg pain and cramps as a result of nerve damage.
In effect, the body’s inability to use insulin allows high levels of sugar to accumulate in the bloodstream.
Too much sugar in the bloodstream acts as a type of poison to the nervous system, making muscle spasms more likely.
High blood sugar also drains the body’s water supply, leaving a person more prone to becoming dehydrated.
As dehydration starts to impair normal muscle function, muscle spasms start to develop.
Atherosclerosis conditions develop as a result of plaque build up along artery walls.
Arteries, whether they’re going to the heart or to other areas of the body, carry nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood. Any condition that slows down blood flow impacts the health of the body as a whole.
Atherosclerosis happens slowly, over time as cholesterol deposit accumulates in the arteries.
This accumulation not only slows blood flow but also causes artery walls to harden and narrow. These effects further impede blood circulation rates.
As with conditions involving iron deficiency, oxygen deprivation to the muscles is an end result of atherosclerosis.
Over time, muscle spasms can give way to severe cramping and eventual muscle tissue damage when this condition goes untreated.
Widespread effects of atherosclerosis can impair heart, brain and immune system functioning as well as a host of other bodily systems.
Can Getting Overheated Cause Muscle Spasms?
Overheating occurs when the body’s temperature control system can no longer maintain normal temperatures.
This can result from over-exercising, hot temperatures combined with high humidity and staying in a hot environment for too long.
Once the body’s temperature level reaches a certain point, any number of physical problems may develop, one of which being dehydration.
When hot conditions persist, overheating turns into heat exhaustion. The effects of heat exhaustion can be life-threatening, but muscle spasms can start to develop well before heat exhaustion sets in.
Signs of heat exhaustion include:
- Profuse sweating
- A Headache
- Extreme thirst
- Muscle cramps
As mentioned above, sufficient amounts of water are needed for the body to make use of electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphate), which make nerve to muscle communication possible.
When dehydration develops, abnormal muscle cell activities can easily cause a muscle to start spasming, cramping and even seizing up.
To add insult to injury, not having enough water in the body means the body can’t sweat, which is how it cools itself off.
Under these conditions, muscle spasm symptoms may well be early signs of dehydration.
What Are Some Signs and Symptoms Associated With Muscle Spasms?
The human body has nearly 800 muscles, so signs and symptoms of muscle spasms can take different forms depending on the area affected.
The underlying cause of muscle spasms also determines the types of symptoms that develop.
While not all types of spasms warrant cause for concern, the more painful the effect the higher the risk for long-term injury or tissue damage.
On the other hand, recurring spasms that affect smooth or involuntary muscles may not bring on pain, but can still lead to serious medical problems over time.
Spasms within the body’s skeletal or voluntary muscle groups usually come with an acute onset of pain. The muscle itself may feel tight or even appear to bulge underneath the skin.
Skeletal muscle spasms may also take the form of twitching that affects a group of muscles, such as in the thumb or eyelid. Twitching appears as a slight, repetitive contraction that’s uncontrollable.
Frequent and/or prolonged twitching may be a sign of an underlying neurologic disorder, such as muscular dystrophy or lateral sclerosis.
When an underlying medical disorder is involved, other more pronounced symptoms, such as muscle weakness and loss of muscle volume will also be present.
Spasms affecting smooth muscle tissue may bring on short bursts of acute pain and tend to come and go, though symptoms will vary depending on the area involved.
Who Is Most at Risk of Developing Muscle Spasms?
Considering the different muscle types and all the different ways the body uses muscles, most people will develop muscle spasms of some sort in their lifetimes.
That being so, factors that increase the likelihood of developing this condition include:
- Daily lifestyle
- Physical health
- Emotional/psychological health
- Genetic predispositions
Daily lifestyle plays a big role in terms of how a person uses the body’s muscles on a regular basis.
People who spend hours on end sitting at a desk at work face a high risk of developing back spasms due to inactivity. If poor posture or poor back support is an issue, the risk is even higher.
These effects carry over into other areas of a person’s life as well. Anyone of the body’s skeletal muscles is that much more susceptible to strain and injury when engaging in out-of-office activities, such as trying to move a piece of furniture, playing a recreational sport or even doing simple household chores.
Another lifestyle condition to consider are occupations where work takes place in hot environments, such as construction work or factory conditions.
Spending large amounts of time in excess heat can dehydrate the body, making muscle spasms more likely.
Dietary intake determines the types of materials (minerals, nutrients) the body has to work with to keep the muscles working normally.
According to the Journal of Athletic Training the essentials minerals (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphate) greatly contribute to nerve-muscle communications, diets lacking in these materials create conditions where muscle spasms are more likely.
Diets high in cholesterol and low in fiber also pose an increased risk for plaque build-up within the body’s smooth-muscled arteries. Spasms of this sort can lead to serious medical problems down the road.
Overall physical health lies at the root of most any medical condition, so health factors play a huge role in normal muscle functioning.
Chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure can make it difficult for muscles to receive the nourishment needed for normal functioning.
These conditions also tend to wear away at the body’s nervous system, weakening nerve-muscle communications over time so the risk for developing muscle spasms is there.
Not getting regular exercise also contributes to poor muscle functioning and eventual wasting away of the muscle tissue.
As muscles grow weaker, their ability to respond to daily demands declines, which increases the risk for developing muscle spasms.
Considering the role the brain plays in coordinating muscle movements, any conditions that impact its chemical balance can interfere with the body’s overall health.
Psychological disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety can take a tremendous toll on the body’s major systems, including the muscles and nerves.
People who’ve struggled with emotional issues for long periods of time face an increased risk of experiencing muscle spasms. The resulting lifestyle from these conditions only works to compound the risks.
Genetic predispositions have to do with inherited disorders that directly impact the body’s nerves and muscles.
In effect, a malfunction in any one area of the body’s neuromuscular system leaves a person more vulnerable to experiencing muscle spasms.
Neuromuscular disorders that may have a genetic component include:
- Peripheral nerve disorders
- Neuromuscular junction disorders
- Genetically determined ataxias
- Skeletal muscle disorders
- Motor neuron disorders
The aging process naturally breaks down the body’s cells, tissues, and nervous system structure.
In turn, the chances of straining a muscle increases as muscles weaken with time.
Nervous system functions also work less efficiently, so communications between the brain and the muscles tend to deteriorate.
As the body gets older, practices that go unnoticed during the 20s and 30s, such as poor diet or an inactive lifestyle start to cause problems during the 40s and 50s.
All of these conditions combined to leave the body more susceptible to muscle spasms of all kinds.
What Treatments Are Available for Muscle Spasms?
Treatment approaches for muscle spasms vary depending on the type of spasms as well as on the underlying causes.
According to the U. S. National Library of Medicine, treatment approaches commonly used include:
- Dietary recommendations
- Medical care
- Physical therapy
- A combination of treatments
Underlying causes may result from strain and possibly tissue damage in which pain medication may be needed to provide short-term relief.
In cases of muscle tissue damage, anti-inflammatory drugs may also be prescribed.
Since tissue damage likely results in impaired movement, physical therapy treatment may be warranted.
If a medical condition, such as diabetes, anxiety or heart disease is present, controlling the symptoms of the underlying condition will also help alleviate muscle spasm episodes.
Oftentimes, patients being treated for medical conditions are advised to engage in regular exercise, which will also help eliminate muscle spasms.
What Are Criteria Used to Diagnosis Muscle Spasms?
Determining an underlying cause of muscle spasms entails identifying a person’s potential risk factors.
In order to do this, a physician will need to know a person’s medical history and do a physical exam.
In situations where muscle spasms are recurring, blood testing may be done to check for any deficiencies or abnormalities.
Mental health also factors since long-term stress or emotional problems can result from underlying medical conditions.
Long-term emotional problems can cause medical problems to develop so a physician may also look into a patient’s mental health history.
When Is It Time to Get Medical Help?
While the occasional muscle spasm can result from the excess strain on the muscle, recurring spasms may indicate a more serious, underlying problem is at work.
As with any other type of physical ailment, an ongoing problem will only get worse the longer it goes untreated.
The degree of pain and immobility that results from a muscle spasm may also be an indicator as to whether medical treatment is warranted.
Over time, underlying nerve damage, blood pressure problems, and electrolyte imbalances wreak havoc on the body’s overall health.
As a general rule, if muscle spasms start to impede a person’s quality of life or ability to carry out daily activities, it’s time to consider getting treatment help.
In this respect, may seem like a small discomfort today can turn into a serious medical problem down the road when left untreated.