What is a cramps (muscle spasms)? Cause, symptoms and treatment

23 February 2019   |    1 June 2019   |   Category: Orthopedics
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Cramp, (muscle spasm) is a sudden and involuntary contractions that are usually painful and capable of contracting the muscles. It can affect many muscles in the body or cause different symptoms. The most common type is the spasms of skeletal muscles. In general, even though it is resulted from the injury to the muscles, overuse, electrolyte imbalance in the body and loss of water in the body, it may also develop due to other reasons. Apart from skeletal muscles, organs such as the uterus, intestine, biliary tract and blood vessel walls can also be exposed to cramps. Although most muscle spasms are temporary, sometimes cramps may reoccur regularly. In this case, a person must get medical help. Treatment of hot and cold compresses, medication, exercise, massage, such as different methods can be used.

What is a cramp?

Muscle spasm is a condition that occurs after the release of excessive strychnine into the muscles by the nerves. The reason for this is that the brain tries to make movements of the cooled muscle tissue suddenly. Under normal conditions, the muscle fat tissue has to warm up and need to get enough protein and vitamins so that the muscles are able to move. Spasms, which are mostly felt on the thigh as well as the anterior and posterior part of the legs, may also appear in the arms, hands, feet, and abdomen.

Back and shoulders are other areas where muscle spasms are seen intensively. Severe spasms can make an individual wake up from sleep or make it difficult to walk. Contractions of certain muscles may affect the surrounding muscles or even the entire body. In some cases, these cramps may be accompanied by swelling of the muscle tissue. Spasms can pass in a few seconds or continue for 15 minutes.

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Causes of cramp (muscle spasm)

Muscle spasms may be a temporary cause of muscle overload, as well as a medical health problem behind those spasms. Therefore, if spasms become severe and persistent, you should immediately see a specialist. Most common causes of muscle spasms are:

  • Mineral deficiency: Muscle spasms are common in people with calcium, potassium, sodium and magnesium deficiency. In this case, doctors usually prescribe muscle relaxants containing these minerals.
  • Dehydration: Excessive water loss (dehydration) is another factor that can cause muscle spasms. The increase in muscle spasms, especially after exercise, depends on dehydration. However, hot and humid air can also trigger dehydration, leading to spasms.
  • Inadequate blood flow: Insufficient blood flow in the legs and feet, especially in active people doing regular exercises, may result in extremely severe contractions. Person may experience cramps while exercising, walking or participating in other activities.
  • Nerve entrapment: The pinching of the nerves in the spine (spinal nerve compression) is another cause of muscle contractions in the legs. Pain in the legs are often more noticeable in long walks.

Causes could be very painfull

  • Excessive use of muscles: Muscle spasms can be seen in people who has jobs that cause overuse of neck, shoulder and back muscles such as grass mowing, snow shoveling, etc. Such spasms generally tend to spontaneously overact when over activity is avoided. Activities that cause the muscles to be held in the same position for a long period of time, such as sitting on the computer for hours, can trigger muscle tension.
  • A number of disorders like obesity, etc.: Obesity, which causes the body’s core muscles to be tensed and stressed, is the most important cause of contractions in the lower and upper muscles of the neck. People with diabetes, anemia, thyroid problems, and kidney disease are at risk.
  • Nervous system-related diseases: Spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, and nervous system disorders such as amyotrophic sclerosis are mostly associated with muscle spasms.
  • Frequent use of a number of medications: Occasionally, side effects of certain medications may include muscle spasms. Donepezil used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure medication such as Nifedipine, a number of asthma drugs such as Terbutaline, may cause muscle spasms. Diuretic drugs such as Lasix and Microzide, separate water from the body and cause dehydration and spasms in the body.

WARNING: Alcoholism, stress, smoking or drug use cause plaque accumulation in the coronary arteries that feed the heart muscles with blood and narrows the arteries. In this case, the person may experience severe chest pain that can be confused with a heart attack. Coronary artery spasms are common especially in people with high cholesterol levels.

Signs of muscle spasms

  • A sudden and sharp pain in the muscles
  • Feeling of a muscle stiffness under the skin
  • Muscle twitching

are typical muscle spasm symptoms. These symptoms usually disappear after a period of time with no intervention. Symptoms usually vary depending on the cause of spasm and in which area of our body is felt.

WARNING: You must see a doctor when the swelling of the legs, changes in skin color, redness of the legs, regularly repeating muscular cramps, and spasms are not relieved in spite of personal interventions. These and similar conditions may indicate another condition, such as muscle weakness.

Types of muscle spasms and cramps

The muscle spasm may vary according to the area affected. The most common types of muscle spasm and cramps can be classified as follows:

True cramps

It is caused by excessive activity of the nerves stimulating the muscles. They can cover a single muscle or a whole group of muscles. Muscle fatigue, injury, excessive use of muscles can cause true cramps. Resting cramps which are seen in elderly people and can cause individuals awake from their sleep are also evaluated in this class. Loss of body water, sodium deficiency in the body are other causes of real cramps.

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Tetanic type cramps

It occurs as a result of the activity of all nerve cells in the body. The low amount of calcium and potassium greatly increases the activity of the nerve muscles. Muscle spasms in the hands and wrists are often due to low calcium levels. It is often not possible to separate these spasms from true cramps.

Dystonic Cramp

This is most likely to occur in people who are over-exercising muscles or who use muscles in the opposite direction of intended movement. Excessive use of hands and wrists known as writer cramps is included in this class.

Muscle spasm in lower back

The muscles of the lower back muscles, which are mostly seen in people who are lifting heavy loads or dealing with sports needing extreme physical exertion, develop with the involuntary contraction of the waist muscles. By limiting the person’s mobility, it causes the person to walk obliquely. Excessive stress on the muscles in the waist is the main reason. Not having the muscles and ligaments strong enough in the waist area, and the narrowing of the spinal canal together with aging are other important causes.

Sudden and sharp pain in the muscles is important sign

Sometimes changes in seasons, excessive humidity and extreme hot weather, can lead to spasms in the waist. In the treatment, hot compresses are much more used. It is possible to relieve the pain sensation with a hot compress applied to the waist for 20 minutes.

Muscle spasms and cramps around neck

Muscle spasms and cramps in the neck are depending upon different factors such as the excessive use of high or low pillow in the bed, long hours of continuous work at the desk and work on computer, etc. All these factors cause the neck muscles to become stiff and the muscles pressure to the nerves.

The result is cramping on the neck. It accompanies with symptoms such as difficulty in moving the neck or even not being able to lift the head. Hot compresses are used in the treatment. If the symptoms do not relieve, physical therapy would be very neneficial or muscle relaxant, pain relief drugs are used.

Muscle spasms and Cramps in back

Muscle spasm is the contraction of the shoulders and muscles of the back with different causes such as strain, weakness, muscle tension and cold. Strain of the nerve roots around the spine may have different causes such as fatigue, stress, depression, and sudden movement of spine muscles that have not been used for a long time.

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In the treatment of back cramps, besides the hot compress application, different methods such as the use of topical creams that warm and relax the muscles, back and spine massage, increasing calcium and potassium intake can be tried.

Muscle spasms and cramps around shoulders

The compression of the nerves in the neck, neck hernia, soft tissue rheumatism (fibromyalgia), sitting at a desk for a long time, sitting in a hunchback position, posture disorders, can cause muscle spasm in the shoulder. A numbness and arm pain spreading into the arm accompanied by shoulder muscle spasms is usually a sign of neck hernia.

Pain, stiffness and malfunctioning of the muscles in the case of fibromyalgia may be extremely uncomfortable for the patient. Shoulder cramps can be treated with methods such as regular exercise, physical therapy, hot compress, and resting.

Diagnosis of muscle spasm and cramp

For the diagnosis of muscle spasm, your doctor may ask you some questions about your complaints. Your doctor may want to know how many liters of water you consume daily, whether you are exercising, or not and drinking alcohol or not. It may ask you to take a blood test to measure the amount of potassium and calcium in your blood. By measuring the activity of your muscles with electromyography, you can determine if your muscles are abnormal.

You can also have myelography to view the condition of the muscles in your spine. Muscle weakness, fatique, weakness and loss of sensation may lead you to a neurologist, because there may be signs of nervous system disorders.

Treatment of muscle spasms and cramps

Different methods such as medication, exercise, physical therapy may be preferred in the treatment of muscle spasms. Muscle Spasms can also be avoided by taking preventive actions. Methods used in the treatment of muscle spasms are as follows:

Medication Treatment

If the muscle spasm is chronic and severe, your doctor may prescribe certain medications depending on underlying cause. You may need to use ibuprofen-containing medications, muscle relaxants, and narcotic medications for damaged and forced muscles.

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Especially the drugs containing ibuprofen are very effective in the treatment of short-term treatment. In the treatment of cramps due to potassium and calcium deficiency, your doctor may usually recommend using calcium and potassium supplements.

Treatment of Cramps with Hot and Cold Compresses

Hot and cold compresses provide relaxation of muscles and muscle cramps. You can relieve the muscular pain by applying a hot cloth or hot water bag to the aching and contracting area, and with the help of a cold cloth or ice.

Exercises for Spasm and Cramps

Physical therapy has an important place in the treatment of muscle spasms which have become continuous. At this stage, you need to do the movements recommended by the physical therapist regularly. Especially people sitting for long hours at the desk can prevent the reasons of cramps by starting the day with warming and relaxation exercises.

Yoga, Pilates and swimming are other effective methods to treat muscle spasms. Your muscles can be strengthened and relax 2-3 times a week after a 30-minute swimming activity. Pain in the back and neck muscles and those who want to get rid of contractions can be interested in swimming sport.

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Herbal Treatment for Muscle Spasm and Massage with Natural Herbal Oils

Aromatherapy can be used in the treatment of spasms; you can decrease the pain with the massage you will get to the area with the medicinal herbs. Herbal treatment of spasms such as thyme, lavender, primrose, camphor, eucalyptus oil are very beneficial in the treatment of muscle spasms and effective in relaxation of muscles. You can get rid of the spasms with a 20-minute massage to the painful area.

You can also get a general relief by consuming a few cups of celery seeds, chamomile or ginger tea daily. In addition, you can treat in a natural way the muscle contraction and cramps caused by dehydration by consuming 2-2.5 liters of water per day.

Methods for the Protection from Muscle Spasm and Cramp

  • Do not forget to prepare your body for heavy movements before you start exercising with warm up and stretching exercises.
  • Do not exercise immediately after eating. Wait for 30 minutes.
  • Consume nicotine-containing foods such as coffee, tea and chocolate less.
  • Consume at least 2 liters of water during the day. Increase this amount when you exercise.
  • Eat foods rich in calcium and potassium, such as milk, orange juice and bananas.
  • Start using vitamin supplements after consulting your doctor.
  • Try a stress-free life to avoid stress-induced muscle contraction.

What to do when having Cramp?

Cramp in hands

When you have cramps in your hand, you can wrap your hands in a warm towel, then take a muscle relaxant and a pain medication. If you have cramps during exercise, you can stop exercising for at least a few hours.

What to do when having Cramp in feet?

Moving your toes up and down with help of your hands your hands. You can gently massage to stretch your feet, or apply pressure for 30 seconds to the point between your toe and next toe.

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What to do when having Cramp in legs?

You can apply a compress with hot water bag to your cramped leg, then do some stretching exercises. You can get rid of cramping with a 30-minute walk.

Practical Advices to Prevent Muscle Spasm and Cramps

  • Regularly use the medication that your doctor prescribes.
  • Take a shower in the bathtub filled with 2 cups of epsom salt and hot water.
  • Consume foods such as fish, grape molasses and apricots, which are extremely rich in potassium and magnesium.
  • Massage into the cramp with coconut oil.
  • If you have cramps on your legs while you sleep at night, do leg stretching before going to bed.
  • If you complain of leg cramps, take vitamin B complex supplements after consulting your doctor.

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