Muscle spasms are really unpleasant.. There’s no other way to put it. And there are so many questions about them: How long do muscle spasms last? How do I get rid of them? And even more. So here are our answers to all of your muscle spasm questions and confusions.
What exactly is a muscle spasm?
This is actually a difficult question. Because there are a number of answers depending on what you think a muscle spasm is. Technically, it is a nervous problem. The nerve in a body part becomes over-stimulated and begins to ‘misfire’ which causes the muscle to twist, jump, and generally go haywire. This is often accompanied by restricted movement and significant pain and discomfort. Some people mistake simple cramping of a muscle for a spasm.
What causes the nerve to misfire?
Good question. And again the answer is not so simple. There are many reasons for a nerve to misfire. You can think of your nervous system as your internal electrical wiring and many of the causes of nerve issues are similar to problems you can have in your home.
Think of it this way: if an electrical cable gets wet, gets pinched, breaks, or the casing it is held in gets broken, the system will not work properly. Similarly, inflammation and swelling in the tissue around a nerve, physical damage to the nerve itself, and irritation in the nerve sheath (the casing that holds and protects the nerve itself) can all cause nervous problems including muscle spasms. Muscle spasms can also occur in cases of pure nervous system problems, for example multiple sclerosis (MS) and ALS.
However, most people’s muscle spasms are the result of over-exercise or trauma from falls or other accidents.. What’s more, conditions such as MS require very specific treatment and care, so we will focus on the more common suspects.
How long do muscle spasms last?
This depends on the problem. Some muscle spasms may last for seconds, others for years. This largely depends on whether the underlying issue is resolved.
Let’s take a back injury for example: A man is on a ladder in his home, fixing something. He falls off and lands on his back. If he bangs the muscle, he may have a spasm which could last a day or so. If he falls harder and causes swelling in his back muscles, the spasm may last until the swelling goes down, which could be a few days to a week. If he damages the nerve itself, or damages a bone, which then presses on the nerve, the spasm could last until he has surgery or until the nerve itself heals. Or it could come back seemingly randomly over a period of years whenever pressure is applied.
If your spasm is coming and going, especially if it is a muscle in the back, it is highly recommended to seek the care of a physician, as there are several risks involved with leaving spinal nerves untreated. It is also a sign that you are continuing to re-inflame the nerve and need to develop a strategy to allow it to properly recover.
Is there any way I can get rid of this muscle spasm?
Here’s the good news: it is often possible to minimize the severity of muscle spasms or to eliminate them entirely.
If the spasm is a result of muscle inflammation from a workout or traumatic injury, simple methods such as contrast showers, muscle soaks, ice, compression, elevation, massage and so forth can be effective.
If the muscle is in spasm and keeps being activated by a given movement or activity, then clearly a more complex approach is required. Especially with back muscles it is usually best to keep moving, while avoiding the specific movements that trigger or aggravate the spasm. For this it is often best to seek the advice of a physiotherapist or other injury specialist.
If the muscle spasm persists long-term or is especially severe, it can be worth seeing your doctor. In extreme cases they may recommend a muscle relaxant such as TENS machines in order to squash the spasm. However, if there is an underlying structural problem a more dramatic intervention may be required up to and including surgery.
Is there anything I can do to prevent muscle spasms?
If you have never experienced a muscle spasm, there is no need to worry. Staying generally fit and healthy with good circulation and a decent recovery speed is all you need to minimize the general risk of muscle spasm.
However, they can still occur either randomly (there are documented cases of accomplished athletes ‘throwing their back out’ by picking up a shoe off the floor. The point is that staying generally fit and healthy and avoiding potential trauma (e.g. falls and impact) is all you can do and there is no need to go into excessive preparations.
If you have experienced muscle spasms in the past, the situation is a little different. The key to avoiding recurrence will be different based on the form of the previous spasm. Firstly, consult your physician before implementing other steps. Especially in cases where medical or surgical interventions have been applied.
Next, consider long-term anti-inflammatory strategies. Regular gentle exercise is an excellent starting point. There are also several supplements that are worth consideration for their anti-inflammatory properties. The best two are probably Fish Oil or a similar Omega-3 product (1) and Curcumin, a derivative of the spice turmeric. (2) Both have been shown to control inflammation, as well as a host of other benefits.
Finally, in terms of movement, the advice for recovery above applies. Find movements that engage the area which has been in spasm, but identify specific movements which have ‘set off’ a spasm in the past and avoid them. Again it is worth consulting a professional in order to design a coherent program to help you with this.
The Bottom Line on Muscle Spasms
Muscle spasms are an awkward problem. They are somewhat unpredictable, they can come and go, and they come in enough different flavors that it is difficult to predict when they will come, how long they last, and what will help with them. However, with a healthy, active lifestyle, appropriate anti-inflammatory precautions and, when necessary, medical interventions, the pain and inconvenience of muscle spasms can at least be managed.