What are muscle spasms (muscle cramps)?
Otherwise known as muscle cramps, spasms occur when your muscle involuntary and forcibly contracts uncontrollably and can’t relax. These are very common and can affect any of your muscles. They can involve part or all of a muscle, or several muscles in a group. The most common sites for muscle spasms are the thighs, calves, feet, hands, arms and abdomen. When occurring in the calves, especially, such cramps are known as “charley horses.” A leg cramp that happens at night when you’re at rest or asleep is called a “nocturnal leg cramp.”
What do muscle spasms (muscle cramps) feel like?
Muscle spasms range in intensity from mild, uncomfortable twitches to significant discomfort to intense, severe pain. The spastic muscle may feel harder than normal to the touch and/or appear visibly distorted. It may twitch. Spasms typically last from seconds to 15 minutes or longer, and may recur multiple times before going away.
Who gets muscle spasms?
Muscle spasms can occur at any time to anyone. Whether you are old, young, sedentary or active, you may develop a muscle spasm. It can happen when you walk, sit, perform any exercise or sleep. Some individuals are prone to muscle spasms and get them regularly with any physical exertion.
Stretching the area that has the muscle spasm can usually help improve or stop the spasm from occurring. Below are stretches for the muscles in your calves, thighs, back, and neck.
4 stretches for calf muscle spasms
To do the first stretch:
Lie down, stretching your leg by pointing or pulling your toes toward your head. (Pointing the toes toward you is called dorsiflexion.)
Hold for a few seconds or until the spasm stops.
You can also use a strap or belt looped around your foot to gently pull the top of your foot toward you.
This also works for a hamstring muscle spasm.
Other stretches to do:
Stand and put your weight on the cramped leg, bending your knee slightly.
Stand on your tiptoes for a few seconds.
Lunge forward with the leg that isn’t cramped, keeping the cramped leg straight.
Stretch for thigh spasms
Stand and hold on to a chair for balance.
Bend your leg at the knee and reach your leg backward from the hip.
Holding your ankle, pull your foot up behind you toward your buttock.
4 stretches for back spasms
The first and easiest way to stretch a back spasm is to walk around, which can loosen your back muscles and relieve a spasm. Walk at a slow, steady pace to loosen your back muscles.
Tennis ball stretch:
Lie down on the floor or on a bed with a tennis ball (or another small ball) under the area with the spasm for a few minutes.
Try to relax and breathe normally.
Move the ball to an adjoining spot and repeat.
Foam roller stretch:
Lie on the floor with a foam roller perpendicular to your spine.
Move your back over the roller, up to your shoulder blades, and down to your belly button.
Keep your arms crossed on your chest.
Exercise ball stretch:
Sit on an exercise ball and lie back, so that your back, shoulders, and buttocks are stretched out on the ball, with your feet flat on the floor. Do this near a chair or couch so that you can hold on if you lose your balance.
Lie stretched out for a few minutes.
Stretch for neck spasms
While sitting or standing, circle your shoulders by rolling your shoulders forward, up, back, and down. Repeat this motion 10 times.
Then roll your shoulders in the opposite direction by moving your shoulders back, up, forward, and down. Repeat 10 circles in this direction.
You can perform shoulder rolls anywhere, while sitting in a car, at a desk, or if you’re standing in line somewhere waiting.
Massage can be a great way to relieve physical pain and muscle cramps.
Gently rub the muscle that’s in spasm.
For a persisting back spasm, try pinching the area around it hard and holding the pinch for a few minutes. You may need someone else to do the pinching if you can’t reach the area.
3. Ice or heat
Treating pain and spasms with hot or cold therapy can be extremely effective.
For a persistent spasm, apply an ice pack on the muscle for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, a few times a day. Make sure to wrap the ice in a thin towel or cloth so that the ice isn’t directly on your skin.
A heating pad on the area may also be effective for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, but follow this with an ice pack. This is because while heat feels good for pain, it may worsen inflammation. Ice will calm down the inflammation.
Other heat options include a warm bath, hot shower, or a hot tub or spa if you have access to one, which can all help relax your muscles.
4. Mild exercise
Some people find that they can ward off leg cramps at night (which can occur in up to 60 percent of adults) by doing a little light exercise before they go to sleep.
Some examples of light exercise include:
jogging in place
walking up and down a set of stairs
riding a stationary bike for a few minutes
using a row machine for a few minutes
bouncing on a trampoline
While light exercise can help, moderate or intense exercise can affect your sleep, so you’ll want to avoid it right before bed.
5. Topical creams that are anti-inflammatory and pain relieving
Over-the-counter pain relieving creams may help. These include products that contain lidocaine, camphor, or menthol (for example, products by Tiger Balm and Biofreeze).
Emollient gel made from curcuma longa (turmeric) and celery seed reportedly helps ease the pain and inflammation of a muscle spasm.
Buy topical pain relieving creams here.
A 2016 review article on spasms reported an observational study with three participants who used hyperventilating at 20 to 30 breaths per minute to resolve cramps that were exercise-related.
Hyperventilation is when you breathe harder and faster than normal. If you have anxiety, hyperventilation may not be a good choice for you, as it can induce feelings of panic.