Muscle Cramps or Muscle Spasms


Most people have experienced a muscle cramp at some point in their lives. Muscle cramps are also referred to as muscle spasms and vice versa; the words are used interchangeably. During a muscle cramp, the muscle involuntarily contracts and fails to relax. Although typically harmless, spasms of the muscle cause mild to severe pain and stiffness. They usually start suddenly and have a brief duration from a few seconds to fifteen minutes or more. Muscle spasms most often occur in the calves, thighs, and back; however, any muscle in the body can be affected.

Muscle cramps are caused by various factors including dehydration, electrolyte imbalance (magnesium, potassium, and/or sodium), overexertion (especially in a hot environment) and muscle strain, and certain medications. The most common medication culprits include, but are not limited to, diuretics (water pills), certain blood pressure meds, and statins (cholesterol meds). Underlying medical conditions and diseases such as arteriosclerosis of the extremities, lumbar stenosis, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, diabetes, anemia, kidney disease, and thyroid problems may also cause muscle spasms (in addition to various other symptoms).

If the cause of muscle cramps is apparent; such as, overuse or muscle strain, a visit to a physician is typically not necessary. However, if muscle spasms are severe, chronic, and/or interfere with everyday life, a visit to the doctor's office is in order. A physician can perform a physical exam, ask about your current medications, order bloodwork to check for electrolyte imbalances or underlying disease, order X-rays and/or MRI, and refer you to a specialist if needed.

Treatment of muscle spasms mainly focuses on self-care. For example, during an acute episode of cramping in the calf muscle (charley horse), standing up on the non-cramping leg and lunging forward with that leg while straightening the back of the cramping leg helps to stretch and relax the contracted muscle. Icing the muscle sometimes eases the pain. Also, rubbing the cramping muscle with the hands also helps it to relax. Applying heat to the affected area also aids in calming and loosening the contracted muscle. A bath in Epsom salts is particularly helpful. If the muscle cramps are chronic and/or severe, a physician may prescribe muscle relaxers or suggest pain relievers for a limited amount of time.

Prevention of muscle cramps includes stretching the muscles before and after exercising, maintaining a healthy diet rich in magnesium and potassium, and staying hydrated.

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