10 Surprising Things Muscle Spasms Reveal About Your Health
Although occasional muscle spasms are normal, a persistent one can spell trouble. Here's what's going on, and when to seek a doctor's help.
What would cause a muscle spasm?
At one point or another, you’ve probably had a charley horse, also known as a muscle spasm, and you wondered where it came from. Muscle spasms tend to occur when a muscle is overworked or injured, according to U.S. National Library of Medicine. For example, you’re likely to experience leg spasms when you’re running or hiking long distances. (Here are the 7 types of leg pain.)
Although the occasional muscle spasm is relatively normal, sometimes they can be a cause for concern. How do you know when you should seek medical attention? We spoke with several doctors who explain the several causes of muscle spasms and when you should get help immediately.
You worked yourself too hard
Your muscles can only do so much before they say, nope, you’ve gone too far. Though there are often good remedies for muscle pain relief, sometimes you need something more. Muscle spasms, whether in your back, leg, or neck, can be from a muscle that’s overworked while doing strenuous or repetitive movements like gardening, cleaning, or holding a baby. “Muscles get fatigued and sore and you’ll experience a spasm,” says chiropractor Robert Hayden, PhD, founder of Iris City Chiropractic Center in Griffin, Georgia. Rest, ice (to numb the pain) or heat (to relax the muscle), and even a gentle massage may help ease the pain.
A disc may be at fault
A back spasm can be pretty uncomfortable and tough to diagnose. (Here are signs your back pain is actually arthritis.) According to Robert Graham, MD, of Fresh Med at Physio Logic NYC, if the spasm lasts more than three days and is very painful or is aggravated by coughing or sneezing, it may be a disc issue. These spongy cushions that sit between the vertebrae in your back can bulge and press on nerves. Also, watch out for pain that radiates down your legs or is accompanied by numbness or tingling. In those instances, you want to get to your doctor for further investigation.
It may be peripheral artery disease
Also called PAD, peripheral artery disease happens when plaque builds up in your arteries, most often those in the legs. You may feel pain or numbness or the hair on your toes may disappear. (Check out these other weird foot symptoms that can indicate serious trouble.) However, Hayden sees patients come in complaining that the cramping pain of a leg spasm will start as soon as they begin walking. When they stop, it goes away. “This is a sign that the muscle is quickly compromising its own blood supply,” he explains, adding that it sets off a red flag that it may be PAD. In that case, Hayden will check a patient’s circulation and contact their primary care provider to share his findings.
You may be tired
You know how you get those crazy annoying eye spasms sometimes? It’s like your eyelid is going haywire. Luckily, for the most part, it’s normal. Why it happens is a puzzle—doctors tend to be just as stumped as you are. “There’s not a good understanding of the cause, but it may be fatigue, too much caffeine, or irritation in or around the eye,” says Robin Maier, MD, a family medicine physician and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh. If it is persistent or affects your eyesight, see your doctor who will want to dig into your family history, medication usage, and other potential underlying factors. (Check out some herbal remedies that fight fatigue.)
You’re taking dehydrating meds
Yes, your medications can make you sick—know the signs because muscle spasms can be one of them. Some meds can leave you more prone to muscle spasms, says Hayden, and diuretics (or water pills) are certainly one of them. “These are designed to kick your kidneys into high gear. When your body lets go of extra water, you also can throw off your electrolyte balance,” he says. This may deplete you of potassium or magnesium, two nutrients necessary for proper muscle function. Ask your doctor about if switching to another med might help or if there are any lifestyle measures you can take. For instance, if you’re taking a medication that prompts you to lose potassium, you may want to eat more potassium-rich foods like bananas.
You slept funny
Sure, you snagged some shut-eye but then you woke up hardly able to move. As Dr. Maier explains, “your back is just one big mass of muscle going in all different directions. It’s possible to injure a thin strand of that muscle if you sleep with your neck in a funny, cockeyed position.” When that happens, the surrounding muscles cramp up in an effort to protect that muscle, she adds. While not dangerous, it can hurt to breathe and turn your head. Stretch the area, massage it, and stay active. “There’s an old saying that motion is lotion, and that’s true for back spasms and back pain,” says Dr. Maier. If you’re worried, it’s certainly smart to call your doctor to express your concerns at any time. However, if the pain hasn’t subsided in two weeks, you definitely need to make an appointment for a check-up. (Check out these sleep sounder secrets from sleep doctors.)
You’re clicking away on the computer mouse
The muscle spasms in your back could be from the Saturday morning tennis you play with your partner, a long commute to work, or sitting at your computer typing all day. “This repetitive motion fatigues the rhomboid muscles in the upper back and can be what causes muscle spasms,” says Hayden. “Patients come in and say, ‘I feel like I have a knife stuck in back there,'” he explains. Electrotherapy at the office can help, while icing can ease discomfort at home. He suggests filling a Dixie cup with 1.5 inches of water, freezing it, and then peeling the cup away. Use it to massage the area. “It will wake you up and feel good to a spastic muscle,” he says.
It’s a nutritional deficiency
Your electrolytes (calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium) are big players in muscle contraction. When the balance is off, you may be more prone to those twitches, twinges, and weaknesses. Your doctor may want to consider If you’re running low on any of these. A healthy diet is your best bet against falling short, and good-for-you foods often supply a range of electrolytes. For instance, yogurt and bananas both contain potassium and magnesium, Hayden points out.
Yep, there’s a long list of strange things that can happen when you’re pregnant—and calf spasms in bed are one of them. “It’s the one I get questions about the most, particularly with pregnant women,” says Dr. Maier. Why it happens isn’t clear, but stretching with your ankle flexed can help the muscle release, she adds. Not pregnant? You can certainly still be saddled with the occasional charley horse if you overexert a muscle, like taking an extra-long run in the morning or challenging yourself with more laps in the pool. Worried? Take a video of the spasm on your phone and bring it to your appointment with your doctor. Spasms don’t always happen in the doctor’s office, so this way, they can get a sense of what you’re talking about.
Being parched is a recipe for a spasm. Staying properly hydrated is tricky—don’t fall for these hydration myths. When the water level in your body is low, it throws off the electrolyte balance in your body, notes Dr. Maier. It often happens to athletes exercising long and hard in hot weather. The American Council on Exercise recommends drinking seven to 10 ounces of fluid every 10 to 20 minutes while exercising. Water is the number one choice, but if you’re doing high-intensity activity for more than 45 to 60 minutes in the heat, replace lost electrolytes with a sports drink.
- Medline Plus: "Charley horse"
- Robert Hayden, DC, PhD, founder of Iris City Chiropractic Center in Griffin, Georgia
- Robert Graham, MD, MPH, of FRESH Med at Physio Logic NYC
- Robin Maier, MD, a family medicine physician and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh
- American Council on Exercise: “Healthy Hydration”