A spasm is an unexpected, uncontrollable contraction of a muscle, group of muscles, or hollow organ like the bladder; it is distinct from a cramp in that:
- Muscle cramp denotes an episodic, involuntary, and painful contraction of a muscle.
- Muscle spasm is considered a broader term that refers to any involuntary muscle contraction, not necessarily accompanied by pain.
- myoclonus (slight painless contraction, such as hiccups, trembling eyelid, leg that clicks before falling asleep, …),
- fasciculation (barely visible movement of a part of muscle, without a real motor outcome).
Myoclonia are different from fasciculations because they are more obvious, more regular, and often more repetitive. They can also be caused by overwork and cramps.
Most muscle spasms are harmless and go away on their own in a few minutes. However, there are some causes that are linked to more serious health problems, such as dystonia. Stress and anxiety, hard exercise, or dehydration (from water and minerals) are common causes, but they are usually nothing to worry about. Too much excitement, usually in the form of caffeinated drinks, can also make them happen, as can being tired and not getting enough sleep.
For example, they can occur in the thighs, calves, feet, hands and arms, but it is not uncommon to develop them also in the abdomen or along the rib cage.
The easiest conservative treatment for people who are healthy and don’t have cramps is to stretch (lengthen) the muscles involved or give them a deep massage.
WHEN TO WORRY?
Even when they hurt, muscle spasms usually only last a short time. If the pain gets too bad, you should see a doctor (or in case the spasms were consequent to a possible contact with poisons and infectious substances). Also, you should see a doctor if any of the following happen:
- simultaneous presence of swelling, redness or other changes in the skin,
- muscle weakness ,
- increased frequency of occurrence.