A Stitch, Cramp, Charley Horse, or Catch? What is a Muscle Spasm and Why Does it Happen?
Muscle spasms can range from a painless twitch to an excruciating attack that brings a pro linebacker to his knees. In fact, many people experience muscles spasms during daily activity:
- That big toe that sticks down and won’t come back up
- That knot in your shoulder that just won’t come loose
- The twitch in your eye that looks like you’re winking
- The catch in your calf when you stretch too far in the morning
- The stitch in your side when you run too fast
Anatomically, the cause of a muscle spasm is the inability of the muscle fiber to relax. All day long, the fibers contract and relax in concert with adjacent fibers to provide the coordinated movements that we need to perform daily tasks. Those individual fibers are either ON or OFF and don’t have gradations in strength. If more adjacent muscle fibers fire at one time then the contraction is strong. If only a few fire then the contraction is weaker.
When the fiber’s contraction can’t relax correctly then the effect may be a spasm. It could be a mis-firing, like in a twitch, or a forceful spasm like in a charley horse. Pregnancy, obesity, and dehydration can increase the propensity for a spasm to occur. For athletes, high-intensity workouts without sufficient warm-up and hydration can lead to debilitating muscle spasms.
Sometimes, muscle spasms are related to overuse of the muscle in forceful contractions from which it can’t recover. For some people that could be the result of moving a large couch up a flight of stairs. For others, it could be sitting at a desk for long hours with poor posturing. The muscles wear out and begin to fail in their normal contract-relax pattern.
Physical and occupational therapy can help! Therapists help to figure out why the muscle is strained and then teach the surrounding support muscles to share the load. We treat the spasming muscle with myofascial release and soft tissue management, and teach you how to manage with ice, heat, and stretch at home.
You can find a local therapist and more information about how we can help at PT&Me.com. We’ll help you get back to what you love most!
Barrel, A. (May, 2020). Why do muscle spasms happen? Medical News Today. Retrieved April 14, 2021 from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/muscle-spasms
Cleveland Clinic (2021). Muscle spasms. Cleveland Clinic Diseases and Conditions. Retrieved April 14, 2021 from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15466-muscle-spasms