Have you ever been awakened in the middle of the night by a sharp sudden pain in your calf? How about a sharp pain on one side of your back when lifting a heavy object? If the answer is yes to either, then you’ve probably experienced a muscle spasm! A muscle spasm occurs when a muscle in your body over-contracts in a painful, often unexpected way. These are incredibly common and are usually linked to an imbalance somewhere in the body.
A muscle spasm is a sudden over-contraction of a muscle. Muscle spasms typically have a rapid onset, meaning they come on quickly and are short-lived. They are often described as a sharp pain. Dehydration, diet imbalance, musculoskeletal imbalance, and injuries are all possible causes for muscle spasms. Prolonged muscle spasms, in which the muscle remains contracted, are called muscle cramps, though the words “spasm” and “cramp” are often used interchangeably by the average person.
A muscle spasm, most commonly referred to as a muscle cramp, is accompanied by a sudden burst of pain that makes your muscle feel hard and tight. The pain can range from mild discomfort to extremely painful.
There are two primary types of muscle spasms. The first and most common is caused by an electrolyte deficiency. Both muscle contraction and muscle relaxation are physiological actions caused by a series of chemical reactions deep within the muscle fibers. The body requires calcium to contract a muscle, and potassium to relax it. Have you ever heard someone tell you to eat a banana to get rid of cramps? That’s no monkey business—since bananas are a good source of potassium, the idea is that, by increasing the levels of potassium in your body, the muscles will be able to relax more easily.
Additionally, a muscle spasm may occur when a nerve signal is misfired, causing the affected muscle to over-contract involuntarily. This may be the sign of a serious neurological disorder.
Muscle spasms can be caused by a large number of different factors, such as muscle fatigue and dehydration, musculoskeletal imbalance, or nervous system imbalance.
When your muscles are fatigued from overuse or dehydration, they are more likely to spasm and cramp. Overuse and dehydration both deplete the body’s source of key nutrients such as potassium. Since potassium is necessary for muscle relaxation, staying hydrated (ideally with something fortified with electrolytes) and being mindful of your physical limitations will help keep you spasm-free.
The body is designed with a specific alignment so all the muscles are proportionately strong and long. Unfortunately, no one has perfect alignment. When the bones are out of alignment, some muscles are overly stretched while others are overly contracted. The more time we spend in improper alignment, the longer certain muscles are overstretched. When a muscle is overstretched, the nervous system signals a stretch reflex to occur, which is a hypercontraction of the muscle. Ideally, a stretch reflex prevents a muscle from overstretching and tearing. When you go to the doctor and they tap your knee with that little hammer-like tool, they are testing your stretch reflex. Therefore, when you have a muscle in a state of overstretch, the muscle may spasm to protect itself from injury. If you have one muscle in particular that continually spasms, take a look at your standing and/or seated alignment to see if it is related to a musculoskeletal imbalance.
Finally, when the nervous system is imbalanced, it may be unnecessarily firing signals to the muscles to contract, causing unexpected, severe (sometimes even debilitating) muscle spasms. It is likely a sign that your body is overusing the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and underusing the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
- Equalize your weight. Notice your sit bones, those protruding bones in the middle of your buttocks, and how you distribute weight on them while seated. Sit in your office, kitchen, or living room chair, and ask yourself, “Is there more weight on my right sit bone than my left, or more weight on my left sit bone than my right?” If the answer to either question is yes, take time to fidget until your weight is evenly distributed. Memorize that feeling of equalizing your weight on your sit bones and remind yourself to find that equalization each time you sit. By equalizing your weight, you bring your body into better alignment, and your muscles become proportionately lengthened and strengthened.
- De-stress! Everyday tensions associated with work and family can cause mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. Reduce the stress in your life to revive your immune system, calm your nervous system, and decrease muscular exhaustion that can lead to muscle cramping. Practice stress reduction with breathing techniques, journaling, or meditation.
- Eat a balanced diet! Since muscle spasms are sometimes linked to low potassium levels or dehydration, making sure you eat a balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals from whole nutrient-dense foods will help you stay healthy and free of painful muscle cramps.
1. Ground the feet. Press the bases of all ten toes and the heels into the floor, and equalize the weight distribution between the bases of toes and heels. Now, equalize the weight between the right foot and the left foot. Feel the earth supporting you. The feet are the base for support of the entire body. The feet are your foundation for proper alignment, and better alignment brings your body into its best proportion. When the body is optimally proportioned, muscles are not overstretched, so your risk of muscle spasms decreases.
2. Engage the ribs. Place hands on either side of the ribcage with the fingers facing each other and the thumbs wrapping around the back body. Inhale; expand the ribs east and west toward the palm centers. Notice how the fingers move away from each other. Exhale; contract the ribs toward center. Notice how the fingers move toward each other. If your muscle spasms are caused by a nervous system imbalance, consciously engaging the ribs will help calm your nervous system.
3. Nourish the spine. Lubricate the vertebrae by bringing moving the spine into flexion and extension. Come to hands and knees, with wrists under shoulders and knees under hips, in All 4s. Round spine and set gaze to navel. This is spinal flexion. Arch spine and set gaze high. This is spinal extension. Nourishing the spine enhances the flow of spinal fluid to the spine, which increases range of motion and eases overall movement. Movement increases blood flow to the muscles. If you are experiencing spasms, you may need to help your body deliver nutrients like potassium to the muscle.
When you are right in the midst of a muscle spasm, apply heat and/or massage. Both will increase blood flow to the affected muscle to bring necessary nutrients to the muscle and trigger it to relax. Once you’ve increased circulation to the muscle, you can begin gentle stretches.