Many clients complain of muscle tightness, pain or spasms. But what exactly are muscle 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. 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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
Read on to find out 6 Ways You Can Relieve Your Muscle Spasms in the meantime…
6) 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.
Other herbal remedies which have evidence to suggest anti-inflammatory benefits include:
- Green tea
- White willow bark
- Frankincense, and
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.
Gentle exercise and stretching is likely to assist in relieving pain resulting from muscle spasm and can help speed up your recovery. Regular stretching can help to lengthen the muscle and prevent contractures, assisting with muscle maintenance. A gentle, slow paced walk may also decrease the pain associated with muscle spasm by encouraging circulation and blood flow to tissues, reducing muscle stiffness and spasm. Walking stimulates the brain to release dopamine and serotonin, also known as our ‘happy’ neurotransmitters, 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 safety reasons and to prevent further inflammation or damage to the area.
Staying hydrated is one of the most influential steps you can take to reduce muscle cramping and spasm. Our muscles can be made up of 73 percent water. 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. 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.
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 muscle spasm. They also function to maintain fluid and acid-base balance. 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.
1) Soft Tissue OT
A visit to a Soft Tissue Occupational Therapist can assist in the treatment of muscle 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, 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 lower back spasm and set up a personalized treatment plan that reduces your symptoms.
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.
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