What are muscle spasms, why do they occur and what can be done to reduce them? A muscle spasm is simply an involuntary muscle contraction. When you feel a muscle tighten or contract on its own, without your making that happen, the muscle is in spasm.
Ideally, your muscles should be loose and relaxed when you aren’t asking them to work. This means you should be able to jiggle your arm muscles or squeeze your calf and feel the tibia or lower leg bone without too much resistance. Your stomach muscles should also be nice and loose until you decide to contract them.
People with longstanding muscle spasms may notice that their shoulders are shrugged up to their ears or that their hamstrings (back thigh muscles) or buttocks are tight, and they just can’t relax them.
Chronic muscle spasms are usually caused by imbalances in alignment, which can cause poor posture. For example, chronic tightness in the neck and shoulder muscles is usually a response to the head being “locked” forward. The muscle spasms are actually trying to counteract the head’s weight and are the body’s way of stabilizing the imbalance so things won’t get worse. The neck and shoulder muscles aren’t really the problem—although they may cause pain, discomfort and, sometimes, headaches. The actual problem is that the neck is locked forward. Until that is addressed, working to lessen the muscle spasms at the neck and shoulders will only provide temporary relief.
In that example, some of the common causes for the neck being locked forward include a “whiplash” situation in which small joints in the neck vertebrae are locked forward; or a tipped-forward pelvis producing too much sway in the low back. The increased sway often causes the neck to drift forward as a counterbalance.
Once the problem that initiated the chronic spasm is resolved, the spasm often also resolves. An acute spasm (sudden onset of muscle contraction) can start with an injury—like getting hit in the thigh by a softball, or lifting an object that is heavier than expected and suddenly straining your back. Extreme muscle fatigue can also bring on acute spasm. Dehydration and/or electrolyte imbalance (not enough salt and other minerals needed for proper muscle control) are other causes.
Rarely, medical issues involving serious illness, neurological conditions or circulatory conditions can cause unexplained sudden muscle spasms, so it is always a good idea to check with your doctor to rule these out.
Most of us have some degree of chronic muscle spasm. Prolonged sitting positions, improper or inadequate exercise and postural alignment issues are common. Addressing alignment issues and following up with core exercises or yoga are good ways to resolve muscle spasms. Staying hydrated, especially in warm, humid weather, always helps.
Muscles in spasm are telling you important facts about your body. The key to resolving them is to decode the message so that the underlying cause can be taken care of and the problem may go away.