Many clients come in complaining of muscle tightness, pain or spasm in their calves. But what exactly are calf spasms, how do they develop, and how can we treat them? Usually, muscle spasms are normal responses to muscle overexertion, pain, or fatigue. However, in some cases, they may be caused by more serious underlying conditions. It is important to visit your GP or a trained health professional if you are experiencing regular, painful muscle spasms that are impacting on your ability to engage in day to day life.
What Is A Muscle Spasm?
A muscle spasm is a sudden, forceful and involuntary contraction of one or more muscles. A muscle spasm occurs from an abnormally sustained muscle contraction and is very painful. Muscle spasms can occur in any smooth or skeletal muscle within the body. Skeletal muscle spasms occur in the muscles 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. These muscle spasms may result from muscle injury or overuse and occur from sudden or unexpected movements, sustained and repetitive postures, underlying anatomical problems or if a person has not warmed up adequately prior to exercise. Muscle spasms can occur throughout the entire body.
Types Of Muscles 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.
Each of these types of muscle spasm can occur in the calf muscles, but what causes them to occur?
What Causes A 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
Calf spasms may occur if the 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.
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.
4 Best Ways To Relieve Calf Spasm
Your calf is located at the back of the lower leg, just below your knee, and is made up of three muscles – the gastrocnemius, soleus and plantaris. Calves are one of the most common muscles to experience muscle spasms due to its smaller size and weight bearing role. Muscle cramps in the calf are often intensely painful, and may be associated with stiffness and a palpable knot. Read on to find out the 4 Best Ways To Relieve Calf Spasm…
4. Hydration and Electrolyte Replacement
Staying hydrated is one of the most effective steps you can take to reduce your likelihood of calf spasm. A number of bodily functions 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.
Electrolytes are involved in many essential metabolic processes within our bodies. They play a role in conducting nerve impulses, contracting muscles, maintaining our bodies hydration and regulating pH levels. The main electrolytes needed by the body are sodium, potassium (especially for new muscle tissue growth), and chloride with calcium and magnesium playing key supporting roles. These function to help neuromuscular activity, such organized muscle contraction, which is why adequate consumption is critical in preventing your calf muscles from spasming. 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.
Foods high in:
- Calcium: Milk, leafy green vegetables, fish (such as sardines and salmon), nuts and seeds
- Magnesium: Dark chocolate, nuts (especially almonds, cashews, brazil nuts), bananas and leafy greens
- Potassium: Pumpkin, spinach, potatoes and lentils
- Sodium: Canned beans, celery, chicken broth and beets
Note: Low levels of sodium are rare in western countries due to a high salt diet.
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.
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. Thus far, 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.
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.
3. Gentle stretching
Gentle exercise and stretching is can help to relieve pain resulting from calf spasm and can help to speed up your recovery. Regular stretching can encourage muscle lengthening and prevent contractures, assisting with muscle maintenance. A gentle, slow paced walk may also decrease the pain associated with calf spasm by encouraging circulation and blood flow to tissues, reducing muscle stiffness and spasm. 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 safety reasons and to prevent further inflammation or damage to the area.
When you are experiencing a calf 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 calf spasm. Tiger balm and Eagle balm work to heat the muscles due to to high concentrations of menthol, an active ingredient that soothes muscles.
1. Soft Tissue Occupational Therapy
A visit to a Soft Tissue Occupational Therapist can assist in the treatment of your calf spasm. A soft tissue occupational therapist will conduct an assessment to determine the cause of the spasm and then provide hands-on neuromuscular techniques, such as trigger point therapy, dry needling 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. Soft tissue occupational therapists will also work to develop and recommend stretching and strengthening regimes to assist in alleviating symptoms and prevent recurring and lower back spasm. An occupational therapist will also explore lifestyle factors, such as sleep positioning or workplace ergonomics, which may be contributing to your calf spasm and set up a personalized treatment plan that reduces your symptoms.
Trigger Point Release
Trigger point therapy involves the application of firm pressure to a hyperirritable spot or taut band, known as a trigger point. This pressure works to release tension in the muscle, by decreasing the blood flow to the area, and decrease the pressure felt. As the pressure is removed, blood flows back to the area and flushes any toxins released by the muscle. These points and can often refer pain to other parts of the body, lasting a few seconds.
Dry needling is a technique that can be used to reduce muscle restriction by releasing trigger points (see above) with acupuncture needles. A Soft tissue Occupational Therapist will use individually packed sterilised acupuncture needles to directly ‘needle’ the trigger point and produce a local response within the muscle, which then quickly dissipates and allows the muscle to relax.
Myofascial release is a manipulative treatment that attempts to release tension in the fascia due to trauma, posture, or inflammation. Connective tissues called fascia surround the muscles, bones, nerves, and organs of the body. Points of restriction in the fascia can place a great deal of pressure on nerves and muscles causing chronic pain. A soft tissue occupational therapist will employ long stretching strokes meant to balance tissue and muscle mechanics and improve joint range of motion in order to relieve pain.
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.