Coping With Muscle Spasms and Cramps

You bend over to pick up a laundry basket and are startled by sudden, intense back pain. Or you are regularly awakened by sharp pain in your leg muscles. Either way, muscle spasms can stop you in your tracks. But there are plenty of things you can do to cope.

What Are Muscle Spasms?

Muscle spasms are when muscles tense up and contract all by themselves. This can cause pain ranging from mild to severe, and the stiffness can keep you from your normal activities. Leg cramps and back muscle spasms are very common. In fact, back pain is one of the top reasons that people go to the doctor or call in sick for work.

Most muscle spasms are acute, meaning the pain comes on quickly and gets better after a few days or weeks. Often, spasms are triggered by normal activities, like bending and reaching. Sports activities that cause you to move quickly or repeatedly can also bring on spasms. But this isn’t a reason to avoid activity! The long-term benefits of exercise can help you build muscle strength that reduces the likelihood of future muscle spasms.

Muscle spasms can also be caused by injuries, medication side effects, dehydration, and vitamin or mineral deficiencies. And persistent pain can be a factor, too. Your pain may cause you to limit your movement or hold your body in a rigid position. Sometimes, protective habits like this put more strain on your muscles and lead to a cycle of muscle spasms and pain.

But even when pain persists, it doesn’t always mean that there is something seriously wrong. And there are many things you can do to prevent and manage muscle spasms.

How Do I Manage Muscle Spasms?

First, remember that most muscle spasms get better quickly with self-care. Some of the best things to try, either alone or in combination, include:

  • Rest — but not for very long, and not in bed. It’s okay to take a couple days off from strenuous activity with severe back muscle spasms, but it’s important to continue with movement despite some pain.

  • Gentle exercise and stretching can help reduce and relieve muscle tension. You can ask your Hinge Health coach or physical therapist for suggestions.

  • Alternate ice and heat to reduce symptoms of inflammation and increase blood flow.

  • Massage to relax muscles and encourage blood flow and healing.

  • Acupuncture can improve back muscle spasm pain.

  • Relaxation techniques like meditation and breathing exercises may encourage spasms to relax.

If pain continues for several weeks, you might ask your doctor about taking over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug). But it’s best to avoid these until after you try other techniques. New studies show that they provide minimal relief for muscle spasms and don’t help you address the source of your pain.

When Should I See My Doctor?

Severe pain from leg cramps or back muscle spasms can be scary. But it’s important to remember that most muscle spasms get better quickly with self-care and they usually do not indicate a serious issue.

While uncommon, back pain that occurs with fever, serious injury, unexplained weight loss, or bladder or bowel problems can be a sign of a more serious problem. You should see your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms, or if spasms and cramps occur frequently and interfere with your sleep or mobility.

As frustrating as they are, there’s always something you can do to manage muscle spasms. And there are also ways to prevent painful muscle spasms from occurring. Studies show that you are less likely to have spasms when you are consistent with physical activity, perform exercises that strengthen your back and abdominal muscles, keep your weight in a healthy range, and manage your stress. Muscle spasms are no fun, but you can take steps to get past the pain and prevent them from slowing you down.

Key Takeaways

  1. Muscle spasms and cramps are when muscles involuntarily tense and contract.

  2. You can manage most muscle spasms with a combination of self-care techniques.

  3. You can prevent muscle spasms with consistent activity, strengthening exercises, and lifestyle changes.


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