A guide to understanding muscle spasms and the proper methods of treatment.


Have you ever experienced a muscle twitch or contraction that occurs without any apparent cause? Relax, they’re not really insects crawling under your skin, they’re actually muscle spasms. Brace yourselves for the grand reveal, folks!


A Beginner’s Peek into Muscle Spasms

The best way to describe what muscle spasms are would be involuntary contractions or twitches of one or more muscles, which can be painful. The most commonly known reasons for spasms include overexertion, pain and fatigue of the muscles. For example, frequent heavy lifting during gym sessions, or sudden and repetitive turns when playing contact sports can lead to lower back spasms as a result of muscular stress. It doesn’t end there. Spasms could also point towards serious systemic or neurological diseases. Yikes!

That said, it is super important that we identify the timing, frequency, duration, pattern and overall environment in which they occur. While we’re on the topic, it’s also good to know that muscle spasms usually involve the skeletal and smooth muscles in your body. In the famous words of Notorious B.I.G, “...and if you don’t know, now you know”.


The Difference between Skeletal and Smooth Muscles

The main differentiators between skeletal muscles and smooth muscles are embryological origins, functions, innervations and physiologies. Confused? We got you. Skeletal muscles are the ones anchored to bone, either directly or via a tendon. When a skeletal muscle contracts, the associated body part moves, thus voluntarily allowing an individual to lift weights, run, jump, and even smile. Pretty neat, huh?

Smooth muscles on the other hand, are located within the hollow internal structures in the body, such as the arteries, bladder and iris of the eye. They are involuntary and controlled by the unconscious part of our brain function using the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating processes within the body, which in turn allows the body to respond to stress. Let’s walk through an example real quick. When faced with potential danger, our hearts beat faster, palms get sweaty, and bowels move, simply because the sympathetic nervous system has been activated. Get your goggles ready, we’re divin’ in deeper now.


So, What Causes Muscle Spasms?

One factor which can contribute to the occurrence of skeletal muscle spasms is injury or overuse. For example, if an athlete has not warmed up or stretched properly before performing any form of vigorous physical activity, such as playing sport, sprinting or jumping. Skeletal muscle spasms can also occur as a result of not maintaining proper balance between fluid and electrolyte intake, or if your body is depleted of its nutrient requirements. This is pretty common during endurance training, which involves the use of muscles with increased metabolic demand.

Comparatively, muscle spasms can also affect smooth muscles in a multitude of ways. Smooth muscles in the intestinal wall can go into spasms, causing a painful sensation called colic. This colicky pain, which is usually intermittent, can also happen within the bile duct that empties the gallbladder. This can take place after eating. Similarly, diarrhea, which is also associated with colicky pain, can cause the muscles within the intestinal wall to spasm just before a watery bowel movement. Kidney stones that try to pass within the smooth muscles of the ureter walls also can cause rhythmic spasms that are extremely painful, and are usually accompanied by nausea and vomiting. There’s more, y’all.


Muscle Spasms as an Indicator of Something Worse?

And if you thought the brunt of muscle spasms ends there, you’ve got it all wrong. In fact, spasms can actually point towards something far more dangerous, such as a neurological disease. For example, severe muscle spasms can occur as a result of irritation or damage caused to a nerve connected to a muscle, such as spinal stenosis or major disc herniations. Spinal stenosis or disc herniations disrupt nerve root signals from the spinal cord. 

If we’re talking about the brain, there are several regions responsible for the movement of skeletal muscle. This means that problems in one or several brain regions can result in abnormal muscular spasms, such as dystonias (repetitive contractions that cause jerking over a prolonged period), blepharisma (involuntary blinking) and myoclonus (sudden, irregular involuntary contractions). Read on, there is light at the end of it all. 


So, How do We Manage Muscle Spasms?

The best way to treat skeletal muscle spasms are through regular aerobic exercise, an ideal balance of muscle stretching and conditioning, and correction of poor postural habits and biomechanics. On the other hand, treatment of smooth muscle spasms or more difficult conditions should be recommended by a neurologist or movement disorder specialist, and can involve specific medications or therapy. For example, mood regulation and psychological therapy, which includes mind-body strategies and stress reduction techniques. You can thank us later.

Be sure to seek consultation with a doctor should you experience muscle spasms that happen more than once in a day. Never attempt to treat the spasms on your own, as they could be indicators of something bigger, which, if left untreated or treated wrongly, could lead to severe permanent effects on your body. So chin up, guys, and let’s work towards a healthier you!