What is Muscle Spasm?
Muscle spasm is a condition, in which a muscle or a group of muscles of the body get tightened or become stiff, causing pain and discomfort.1 It occurs when a muscle contracts itself, becomes tight and results in further problems. Muscle spasm can occur in any part of the body, but the muscles of the neck, back, hands and legs are more commonly affected. Symptoms of muscle spasm can vary from person to person and the same need to be understood to manage the condition effectively.
Body muscles are continuously performing their function of supporting and protecting the bones, organs and other body tissues. They are repeatedly used during daily activities and are also prone to injuries in some cases. Just like the large muscles of the spine and limbs can get affected, smaller muscles of the palms and feet can also get involved. In some muscles, the spasm may be prominent, while in some groups of muscles or small muscles may exhibit only pain and difficulty in movement.
Muscle spasm can occur as an acute contraction of a muscle or a group of muscles or in some cases, muscle spasm can remain for long causing much discomfort and pain. Hypertonic muscle spasm occurs when the muscle remains in a contracted state most of the times and the muscles do not relax even when resting.
What are the Causes of Muscle Spasm?
Muscles have tensile strength, which means that they can get stretched to an extent, which makes movement easy. However, in certain cases, if the muscles are stretched beyond their capacity, it can result in small tears or strains. This can cause muscle spasm or tight contraction of the muscle.
When a muscle gets overstretched due to overuse, falls, blows or injuries, it can result in small tears in the muscle. This can cause an inflammatory reaction, resulting in swelling in the area. The muscle, in order to prevent further damage and to protect the surrounding body parts, gets tightened. This results in pain and discomfort when the muscle is used or the part is moved. It actually protects the inner delicate structures as it prevents further movement of the area, so that healing can occur.
Normally, muscle spasm due to overstretching, recovers within few days or weeks. However, if it lasts long, the cause of muscle spasm may be an underlying condition, which needs attention. Serious injuries or conditions affecting the spine or the joints can cause severe or repeated muscle spasm.
Some of the common causes of muscle spasm include:
- Muscle Overuse – Overuse of certain group of muscles is the commonest cause of muscle spasm. This is seen more in persons using their hands, legs, or other parts for repetitive activities. Certain occupations like typing, painting, sewing, knitting or others can result in contraction of the overused muscle and cause muscle spasm.
- Muscle Strain – Activities that need lifting of heavy objects, weights, etc. can strain the neck and back muscles, which are the common causes of muscle spasm among those doing physical labor. Sportsperson too are at increased risk of muscle strain, which can cause muscle spasm.
- Injuries – Injury or trauma to the muscles, bones or soft tissues like ligaments, tendons, etc. can cause muscle spasm, of the surrounding muscles. Neck and back muscles commonly get strained in an injury to the back or the spine. Activities that increase the risk of muscle strain, lifting heavy weights, awkward positions or movements and sports can cause various injuries to the body and result in muscle spasm.
- Disc Problems – The common condition noted in case of neck and back muscle spasm is an underlying condition or injury to the spine. Intervertebral disc protrusion or herniation can cause severe muscle spasm, pain and difficulty in movement. Cervical or lumbar disc herniation is a serious cause of muscle spasm that must be treated with caution.
- Joint and Spine Disease – Muscle spasm can be a result of an underlying joint or spinal disorder. An inflammation in the joint, arthritic condition of a joint, conditions affecting the soft tissues around the joint can cause muscle spasm in the area. These are commonly seen as muscle spasm in the back, hands and legs. Neck and back muscle spasms are also caused due to problems of the facet joint, degenerative disorder of the spine, cervical and lumbar spondylosis, spinal stenosis, etc.
- Nerve Damage – In some cases, damage to the nerve, either due to medical conditions, injuries or other neuropathies, too can cause muscle spasm. As the nerves are unable to transmit proper signals, which can affect the normal movement of muscle and cause muscle spasm. In this case, muscle spasm in an area is often accompanied by pain, radiating along the course of the nerve. For example, if the neck or cervical spine is affected due to nerve compression, the muscles in the neck become tight. Along with muscle spasm in the neck, neuropathic pain often travels or radiates to the arms, hands and even fingers.
- Nutritional Deficiencies – Deficiencies of certain vitamins and minerals, low levels of calcium, electrolyte imbalance, etc. can cause muscle spasm. Electrolyte imbalance often occurs due to overexertion, loss of fluids due to excessive vomiting or diarrhea, dehydration, etc. which can cause muscle spasm. These spasms are more like cramps, which last for a short period and can be recovered with gentle stretching, adequate fluid and electrolyte intake.
- Weak Muscles – Other conditions that affect the muscle strength and performance too can cause muscle spasm, when the condition is triggered. Weak muscles are often at increased risk of muscle spasm, which can occur with sudden lifting of weight, jerks when traveling, playing or due to a fall. People having weak muscles, when involved in sports can easily strain the muscles and cause muscle spasm.
- Medical Conditions – Medical conditions that affect the muscle or nerves too can cause muscle spasm. Certain congenital disorders or genetic conditions, due to which muscles remain weak or the tone of the muscle gets affected can cause muscle spasm. Rheumatoid conditions, arthritis or other joint conditions often affect the muscles and cause muscle spasms. Other conditions like fibromyalgia, can also cause muscle spasm, particularly of the neck and the back.
Other Causes of Muscle Spasms
- Some types of muscle spasms can also occur in small muscles causing twitching like movements, for example, blepharospasm or the twitching of the muscles around the eye or the eyelids.
- Muscle spasms can also be a result of heat cramps or cramps due to extreme cold, which occurs due to exposure to extreme temperatures.
- Conditions that affect adequate circulation of blood, too can cause muscle spasm due to insufficient blood supply to the part.
- Severe muscle spasm, with pain and other complaints can also occur due to certain infections that affect the spine, joints or muscles. Systemic infections of their complications too can affect the muscles and cause muscle spasm.
- Apart from muscles around the bones, there are muscles present around the organs also. Muscle spasms around internal organs can be a result of problems related to the organs. For example, muscle spasm can be felt as colic or abdominal cramping pain, due to gastrointestinal problems. Similarly menstrual cramps can cause muscle spasm in the area. Other causes of muscle spasm around organs include renal colic from urinary tract infections, kidney stones and pain in right upper part of abdomen in gallbladder stones, inflammation of the gall bladder (cholecystitis).
What are the Symptoms of Muscle Spasm?
A tensed muscle or a muscle spasm can be a very painful condition and can be a sign of a possible underlying condition. For example, when back muscles get into spasm, it is possibly because of torn muscles, ligaments or it could be a result of a disc injury in the spine, which needs immediate medical attention. Due to the muscle spasm in the back, in such cases, further damage to the spine is prevented and the condition is brought to notice due to the symptoms of muscle spasm. Hence, it is important to understand the symptoms of muscle spasm and its relation to a possible underlying condition or injury.
Symptoms of Muscle Spasm Include:
- Stiff or tense muscle around a joint or a spinal vertebra is a classical symptom of muscle spasm. Muscle stiffness in muscle spasm usually occurs following an injury or a fall in the related area.
- Severe pain in the area of tense muscle is almost an accompanied symptom of muscle spasm. Weakness in the muscle, discomfort, stiff and strained feeling is a common symptom of muscle spasm.
- Restricted movements of the muscle and the related joint in muscle spasm occurs as the muscle tries to guard and protect the inflamed part. Range of motion is affected and slightest touch can worsen the pain, in some cases.
- When muscle spasm is a result of an underlying joint or spinal condition, or disc problems, nerve impingement may be present. The nerve compression can cause radiating pain in the limbs, or around the affected area, with a burning or stinging sensation. Nerve pain is often felt like sudden, sharp shocking pain and may be associated with numbness and tingling in the limbs and fingers or toes.
- Muscle spasm due to abdominal or menstrual colic is often presented as cramping, spasmodic pain, which is almost unbearable. This is accompanied with specific symptoms related to the system, like vomiting, diarrhea in case of gastrointestinal problems or excessive menstrual flow, fainting in muscles spasms due to menstrual cramps.
How is Muscle Spasm Diagnosed?
Diagnosis of muscle spasm can be done with the help of history of the person and clinical examination, depending on the area of muscle spasm. History of person is important as it can reveal the conditions, injuries, sports or activities related to the muscle spasm. The occurrence, duration of the muscle spasm and the associated symptoms of muscle spasm need to be considered.
Clinical examination, helps to detect presence of swelling, fracture, ligament injuries or possibility of any trauma to the area. Appropriate investigations may be ordered, depending on the condition and possible causes of muscle spasm. Some of the investigations include
X-ray – X rays of the relevant area often help to reveal any abnormality in the bone, injuries to the bones, degenerative disorders, etc. Special X-rays of the abdomen, kidney and internal organs may help to reveal abnormalities like kidney stones, etc.
Ultrasonography – This is usually used for abdomen, kidneys, pelvic organs and other parts. These can help to detect abnormalities, inflammation, growths, stones, etc. which can cause muscle spasm.
MRI and CT scans – These scans may be ordered, if found appropriate, depending on the severity of the condition. Injuries to the joints, brain, spine, etc. often require these scans to detect the cause of muscle spasm. Spinal problems and nerve involvement is often diagnosed using these scans, so that appropriate treatment for muscle spasm can be planned.
Others – Blood investigations may be done to rule out certain conditions, rheumatoid problems, arthritis, inflammatory reactions, infections or other conditions affecting the joint or the muscle. When muscle spasms of the internal organs are noted, relevant blood investigations may be advised to diagnose the underlying condition.
What is the Treatment for Muscle Spasm?
Muscle spasm is a result of contraction of the muscle and as there are various causes of muscle spasms, the treatment also varies.2 However, in most conditions, there is a need to relax the muscle to relieve the pain and discomfort of the muscle spasm. With proper diagnosis of muscle spasm, the underlying condition is revealed, which is important to plan treatment for muscle spasm.
Some of the common treatment options for muscle spasm include:
Medical Management for Muscle Spasm
Medicines are commonly used to treat muscle spasm, which include muscle relaxants, which help to relax the contracted muscles and relieve pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines may be given to reduce the inflammatory reaction, swelling and pain due to muscle spasm.
Rest is usually important for the strained muscles to treat muscle spasm. Applying ice packs, cold therapy is also helpful, particularly in case of inflamed, sore muscles and in case of acute injuries. Compression and elevation of the affected part may be advised as appropriate. As muscle spasm can be a result of a noticeable cause as well as serious underlying condition, it is important to follow proper medical advice. Chronic conditions of muscle spasm may find warm compresses beneficial. Sleep plays an important role in muscle spasm recovery, hence it is essential to ensure an adequate night’s sleep.
Any other serious cause like spinal disc problems, etc. may require immediate medical attention and hospitalization.
Physical Therapy for Muscle Spasm
Physical therapy is often helpful in cases of muscle spasm caused due to neck, back, spine or joint problems. Various modalities are used in physical therapy to treat muscle spasm, relieve pain and regain the muscle strength. Therapeutic exercises that help to strengthen the muscles, improve co-ordination must be performed to prevent repeated muscle spasm.
Recovery Period of Muscle Spasm
With appropriate rest and treatment period, recovery of muscle spasm can be expected in few weeks; some injuries or conditions may take few months. However, complete recovery of muscle spasm is possible with timely diagnosis and treatment of muscle spasm. Following recovery, it is important to follow medical advice regarding particular dos and don’ts to protect the muscle from further strain. Regular exercises, weight management, balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle can help to maintain muscle strength and prevent muscle spasm.
- Q and A on Disabling Low Back Pain Due To Muscle Spasm or Tense Back Muscles or Facet Joint Pain
- Massage Therapy For Muscles Spasm: Strain, Pain, Deep Tissue Massage Benefits, Contraindications
- Lower Back Muscle Spasms: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment
- What Causes Back Muscle Spasms or Sprain & What is its Treatment, Prevention
- How Long Do Back Spasms Last & What to Do For it?
- 7 Causes of Back Muscle Spasm & Its Risk Factors