Muscle spasms are painful, involuntary contractions of the muscle. Spasms might be a harmless twitch, lasting temporarily, or a prolonged contraction due to a severe damage or neurological condition. During a spasm muscles feel tight and bulgy and are extremely painful. Severe muscle spasms may not release on its own and may require proper stretching to relax the muscle.
The most common areas where spasms occur are the back of the legs, thigh, feet, hands, arms, and abdomen. Muscle spasms can be caused by an electrolyte imbalance in the body (due to dehydration), altered neuromuscular control, poor conditioning or muscle fatigue due to rigorous activity, or due to a serious neurological disorder.
Dehydration is one of the common causes of muscle spasms and cramps. Sweating causes the body to lose a lot of fluids including important salts and minerals in the body (like calcium, potassium and magnesium). Ion imbalance in muscles and nerves prevents muscles from relaxing and thus becomes stiff.
The same effect is seen after prolonged exercise when due to fatigue and low energy, the muscle is unable to relax leading to spasms and cramps. It is for this reason that stretching is always recommended before exercising so that the muscles are conditioned and not exposed to sudden activity. Athletes are known to stretch before and after exercise and keep replenishing their bodies with important salts and electrolytes to prevent muscle fatigue.
Another theory related to muscle spasms supports the “altered neuromuscular control hypothesis” to explain the occurrence of muscle spasms. According to this theory, muscle fatigue and loss of muscle coordination results in spasms, and is not due to electrolyte deficiency or imbalance.
Narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis) which results in reduced blood supply of blood and nutrients to certain parts of the body may trigger spasms. In other cases, diseases of the nervous system like multiple sclerosis, stroke, neurodegenerative diseases, and trauma may also lead to muscle spasms. Nerve damage causes shortening of the muscle and may also cause permanent damage known as contracture.
Muscle spasms can be prevented by maintaining a healthy diet, adequate water intake, and regular exercise. In most cases pain medications and using ice/heat packs may give relief. But if spasms prolong for three days or more and are very painful, or occur in the neck or back along with a tingling sensation, numbness or weakness, medical help should be sought immediately.