What is a Muscle Spasm?
A muscle spasm is a sudden, forceful and involuntary contraction of one or more muscles. They occur from an abnormally sustained muscle contraction and can be very painful. Muscle spasms can occur in any smooth or skeletal muscle within the body. For the purpose of this article we will discuss skeletal muscle spasms. Skeletal muscles are attached to bones, either directly or via a tendon. When the muscle contracts, the relative body part will move. Hence, these muscles are responsible for voluntary movement, locomotion and upright posture. Skeletal muscles require adequate levels of oxygen, glucose, water and electrolytes, supplied by the bloodstream, to function effectively.
Causes Of Muscle Spasm
A person may experience muscle spasming for a number of reasons; with each cause dependent on predisposing factors such as the part of body involved and the environment that the body is in. Common causes include the following:
- Muscle fatigue
- Overuse and/or over-training
- Low levels of the following electrolytes; calcium, magnesium, potassium or sodium
- Low levels of vitamin D
- Nerve damage
- Prior injury
Spasms may occur if a muscle becomes tired, due to overuse, straining or previous injury. A spasm may also occur if a muscle is exposed to a sudden, unexpected movement, is overstretched or is sustained in an awkward position for a prolonged period of time. With overuse or overtraining, the muscles cellular energy and fluid stores deplete, resulting in hyperexcitable muscle which is prone to forceful contractions. A muscle spasm can involve a singular muscle, one part of a singular muscle or a group of adjacent muscles.
Muscle cells require adequate levels of water, glucose, calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium to allow for the proteins within the muscles to develop an organized contraction, and function effectively. If a person is dehydrated or lacking adequate levels of these electrolytes they have an increased risk of experiencing muscle spasming.
The cause of muscle spasm varies from person to person and should be explored by a health professional to determine the best approach to treatment.
Types Of Muscle Spasm
Acute muscle spasms can result from overuse, injury, dehydration and metabolic changes within the muscle. These types of muscle spasms are involuntary and can last from a few seconds to a number of minutes, they are often intense and painful. Acute muscle spasms are relatively harmless and can be easily resolved with the correct treatment. For example, an acute muscle spasm may occur if an athlete has not warmed up adequately prior to intense exercise.
Chronic, recurrent or widespread muscle spasms are longer lasting sudden, forceful and involuntary contractions of one or more muscles. A chronic muscle spasm occurs from an abnormally sustained muscle contraction and is very painful. They are often a result of poor muscle recruitment, repetitive and/or prolonged movements and poor postures. They can also result from underlying anatomical problems or conditions, such as degenerative disc disease or osteoarthritis, due to the instinctive inflammation of the muscles surrounding the condition.
Muscle cramps can be considered as a type of acute muscle spasm. They present as an abrupt, unpleasant and painful sensation caused by sudden muscle contraction or muscle fiver over-shortening. Muscle cramps are usually short lived, however, general muscle soreness may continue for up to a week.
Muscle twitches or fasciculation are involuntary, uncontrolled fine motor movements of small segments of the muscle. These tiny muscle spasms can often be seen underneath the skin as mini twitches. Muscles prone to fasciculation include the thumb, calf, thigh and eyelid.
How To Get Muscle Spasm Relief?
- Visit A Soft Tissue Occupational Therapist
Visiting a Soft Tissue Occupational Therapist can assist in muscle spasm recovery. A soft tissue occupational therapist will conduct an assessment to determine the cause of the muscle spasm, the muscles involved and then provide hands-on neuromuscular techniques, such as dry needling, trigger point therapy and/or myofascial release to improve functioning of the muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia. These neuromuscular techniques work to break down fibrous adhesions, releasing tight muscles and correcting improper muscle functioning and postures. A hands-on approach to treatment can help to resolve a tissue, joint or muscle imbalance and assist in increasing circulation of fresh, healthy blood towards an area increasing drainage of unhealthy, toxic fluid away from the area. This increased nutrition and removal of toxins from the damaged tissue enhances the body’s natural healing response and speeds up recovery and reduces the risk of muscle spasming. An occupational therapist will also explore lifestyle factors, such as sleep positioning or workplace ergonomics, which may increase the risk of muscle spasming and set up a personalized treatment plan that looks to reduce reoccurring muscle spasm.
Muscle Spasm Recovery Time
Muscle spasm recovery is dependent on the cause, location, severity and type of muscle spasm, however, your soft tissue occupational therapist will be able to diagnose and appropriately treat your muscle spasm with a number of hand-on treatment techniques. You should begin to see a reduction in muscle spasm symptoms, such as pain, within the first session of soft tissue occupational therapy. The muscle spasm should be fully resolved within 3-4 sessions of therapy, providing you follow the at home recommendations such as hydration, stretching, strengthening and heat application.
Staying hydrated is one of the most influential steps you can take to reduce your likelihood of muscle spasming. A number of physiological and biomechanical functions throughout our bodies depend on being adequately hydrated, with one being the ability for your muscles to develop smooth, organized contractions. If your muscles are dehydrated and unable to form this smooth, organized contraction they are unable to contract effectively and efficiently, increasing the chances of muscle spasms. In addition, water aids in digestion and is important in eliminating waste products created from working muscles. So drink up!
When you are experiencing muscle spasm, applying heat to the area can help to soothe the muscles and aid in pain relief. The heat increases the circulation of the blood flow throughout the area, enhancing the delivery of nutrients to the muscles, aiding in repair, and reducing the symptoms of muscle spasm. Applying a heat pack, soaking in a hot bath or using topical balms, such as Tiger balm or Eagle balm can help to relieve muscle spasm. Tiger balm and Eagle balm work to heat the muscles due to to high concentrations of menthol, an active ingredient that soothes muscles.
- Regular Stretching and Gentle Exercise
Regular gentle exercise and stretching is likely to assist in relieving pain resulting from muscle spasm, it can help to speed up your recovery and even assist in preventing reoccurring muscle spasm in the future. Stretching works to lengthen the muscle and prevent contractures, assisting with muscle maintenance. Gentle exercise, such as walking, may also decrease the pain associated with muscle spasm and help to prevent on-going muscle spasm by encouraging circulation and blood flow to tissues, reducing muscle stiffness and spasm. Walking also works to stimulate the release of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, helping to make you feel better physically and mentally. Although gentle stretching is recommended it is best to use caution and consult your GP or Soft Tissue Occupational Therapist before you start a stretching regime, for your own safety.
- Electrolytes and Supplements
The main electrolytes needed by the body are sodium, potassium, and chloride; with calcium and magnesium playing key supporting roles. These electrolytes function to help neuromuscular activity, such organized muscle contraction, which is why adequate consumption is critical in muscle spasm recovery. A balanced diet rich in these electrolytes can help to maintain healthy muscle functioning and reduce muscle spasming, if you are unable to attain adequate levels from a balanced diet, supplements may be beneficial.
Potassium intake is especially important for effective muscle functioning. Potassium is regularly used and is lost through muscle contraction and sweating. In contrast to sodium (which helps muscles to contract), potassium assists in muscle relaxation. Therefore, an inadequate level of potassium may increase the chances of a muscle spasming due to the muscles inability to relax after contracting. Food high in potassium include pumpkin, spinach, potatoes and lentils.
Magnesium is another essential mineral for optimal muscle functioning. It’s job is to assist in regulating muscle contractions by blocking calcium, promoting muscle relaxation and repair. Magnesium supplements are available in a variety of forms including, tablets, capsule, power and topical ointments. Research demonstrates efficacy for the use of magnesium powder, as it is the most bioavailable form of the mineral. The recommended daily intake for women is approximately 320mg and 420mg for men. Foods high in magnesium include dark chocolate, nuts (especially almonds, cashews, brazil nuts), bananas and leafy greens.
Vitamin D is commonly associated with maintaining bone health, however, many people do not realise the influence vitamin D has on optimal muscle functioning. This important vitamin assists in the body’s ability to absorb calcium, a vital mineral which assists with muscle contraction. Inadequate levels of vitamin D can therefore lead to inadequate levels of calcium due to the bodies inability to effectively absorb calcium. Eating a healthy, balanced diet should be sufficient in providing all your vitamin D needs, especially in a warm climate where you are exposed to plenty of sun, such as Australia. Foods high in vitamin D include oily fish (such as herring, swordfish and cod liver oil), egg yolks and shiitake mushrooms.
Before you begin any new supplement you should always talk to your GP.
- Natural Anti-Inflammatories
Inflammation, swelling and pain commonly occurs in and around torn, strained and spasmed muscles, ligaments and tendons. Inflammation, swelling and pain can occur when the body’s natural defences become activated by some sort of stimuli such as an infection, a soft tissue injury or joint or muscle imbalance. This defence mechanism acts to support the healing of the body, however if it becomes excessive or prolonged, it can cause pain and discomfort and impair or slow the recovery process. Many people dislike taking anti-inflammatory medication to assist in relief from symptoms of muscle spasm. Luckily, in recent times, plenty of research has gone into finding naturally occurring anti-inflammatories.
Turmeric is a yellow powder sourced from the root of the turmeric plant. It is highly regarded for its anti-inflammatory properties, which actually stem from an active chemical compound called curcumin. Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties, which works by blocking NF-kB; a molecule which travels into the nuclei of your cells and turns off the genes related to inflammation, at a molecular level. Curcumin is generally poorly absorbed into the bloodstream. Studies show 500-1,000 milligrams of curcuminoids are required to experience it’s anti-inflammatory benefits. It is recommended to pair your curcumin with black pepper, which contains another natural substance called piperine which has been shown to enhance the absorption of curcumin by up to 2,000%. Adding turmeric powder into your cooking is a great way to help with maintenance of gut health, however, if you are looking to reduce your inflammation the best way to reap the benefits of this powerful, natural anti-inflammatory is to take capsules of curcumin which also contain black pepper. Without the addition of black pepper, it is likely most of the curcumin will past straight through your digestive system.
Ginger, or Zingiber officinale, is a tropical plant which has been shown to produce some anti-inflammatory relief in conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatism and general inflammation. Many of the constituents found in ginger limit the production of cytokines and reduce the activity of cyclooxygenase, which promote inflammation. It is not recommended that you exceed 3-4 grams of dried ginger per day, and no more than 1 gram per day if you are pregnant. Ginger tablets, capsules and teas are a great way to increase your ginger consumption, however, there is some evidence to support the increased efficacy of consuming ginger fresh or dried. Most importantly ginger contains a number of important nutrients, including magnesium, which is important in aiding muscle functioning and reducing muscle spasm.
Bexters Soda Crystals are made from naturally occurring calcium carbonate and sodium chloride, processed to form special crystals. The crystals are hygroscopic, meaning they have the ability to draw fluid from joints and muscles and aid in the relief of swelling, when caused by inflammation. The best way to experience the benefits of Bexters Soda Crystals is to place the soda crystals in a wrap of soft cotton and apply to the inflamed area, approximately 1cm thick. Remove after 30 minutes, or preferably, leave overnight. Can be done every second day for persistent swelling.
Epsom salts or magnesium sulfate is effective way to increase magnesium levels in the body for those lacking adequate magnesium. In addition to reducing swelling, soaking in these salts can reduce muscle spasm and cramping, calm the nervous system and draw toxins from the body. To reap the benefits of these salts place 1 cup of Epsom Salts into a hot bath and soak for up to 30 minutes. The efficacy for the absorption of the salts through the skin is yet to be scientifically proven, however, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence support the use of Epsom salts for the reduction of muscle spasm and pain relief.
At Infused Health our highly trained Soft Tissue Occupational Therapists will use a hands on approach to help treat your injuries, conditions or any concerns you may have. You can make an appointment today by calling 0401 876 623.