Sunday, June 24, 2012

Treating Muscle Spasms and Cramps

Tentative statistics show that around 95 percent of people in the world experience muscle spasms and cramps at least once, at some stage in their lives. This means that 19 in every 20 individuals suffer from muscle cramps and spasms. Laws of probability state that it is likely that you have suffered muscle spasms or cramps and know how painful and excruciating they can be. However, while most people know what happens when muscle spasms or cramps set in, they do not really understand the problem in detail.

Defining the Problem

Whenever a muscle or even small fibres of the muscle contract without you consciously making it happen, it is known as a muscle spasm. When the muscle or fibres that have contracted sustain this contraction, the spasm becomes a fully-fledged cramp. Muscle spasms and cramps vary in intensity from person to person and from situation to situation. Therefore, while you may get a minor twitch another person may be suffering from a spasm that is so intense that it leaves a bruise.

Muscle spasms and cramps can affect any muscle in the body, including voluntary and involuntary muscles. This means that apart from skeletal muscles i.e. voluntary muscles, other involuntary muscles such as blood vessels, bowels, uterus, urinary tract and bronchial tree can also be affected.

Even though any muscle in the body can suffer, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons there are three that are said to be most susceptible to this problem. These are the calf muscles (gastrocnemius), back of thigh (hamstrings) and the front of the thighs (quadriceps).


There are many causes even though none have been scientifically proven. There are two main reasons. The first is muscle fatigue and overstretching which in layman's terms would be making a muscle do more than what it has been conditioned for.

The other reason is electrolyte depletion resulting from dehydration. Sweating heavily drains crucial bodily fluid and electrolytic nutrients such as sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium etc.

Research on the Causes

Research conducted into the causes have revealed muscle fatigue as more potent than electrolyte depletion. Martin Shwellnus from the University of Cape Town conducted a review of all the medical literature on muscle spasms and cramping. In his review, he discovered that altered neuromuscular control, which can loosely be called muscle fatigue is the prime pathophysiological source of muscle cramping. In contrast, his research led him to believe that the electrolyte depletion theory is only based on anecdotal evidence and extrapolation.

Dealing with it

Muscle spasms and cramps are usually not serious enough to warrant medication and often get resolved by themselves. However, if the pain becomes unbearable then the following steps should be followed.

1. Stop the activity that triggered the spasms or cramping.

2. Gently stretch the muscle that is cramping and keep it stretched until the cramps have ceased.

3. Apply heat and gently massage tightened muscles. Alternatively, once the muscles have loosened up, applying a cold compress can relieve the soreness.

4. Consult your condition with a trained and professional therapist.

Fran Kehoe is a fully qualified and insured sports and remedial massage therapist with ITEC Diplomas in Sports Massage, Reflexology, Anatomy & Physiology, Holistic Massage and a FHT Certificate at The Massage Centre, Chiswick.