Muscle Spasms

What causes muscle spasms? (Part 2)

Unfamiliar exercise activities can also cause muscle spasms to occur. Abdominal spasms can occur when a person decides to begin working their abdominal muscles by doing sit-ups and does too many too quickly.

Writer's cramps of the hand and fingers are similarly caused by prolonged use of the small muscles in the hand.

It is commonly thought that dehydration and depletion of electrolytes will lead to muscle spasm and cramping. Muscle cells require enough water, glucose, sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium to allow the proteins within them to develop an organized contraction. Abnormal supply of these elements can cause the muscle to become irritable and develop spasm.

Atherosclerosis or narrowing of the arteries (peripheral artery disease) may also lead to muscle spasm and cramps, again because an inadequate blood supply and nutrients are delivered to the muscle. Peripheral artery disease can decrease the flow of blood to the legs, causing pain in the legs with activity. There may also be associated muscle cramps.

Leg spasms are often seen related to exercise, but cramps may also be seen at night involving calf and toe muscles. Nocturnal leg cramps and restless legs syndrome are considered a type of sleep disturbance. Their prevalence increases with age and often a precise cause is not found.

Chronic neck and back pain can lead to recurrent muscles spasms. Large muscle groups make up the trunk, including the neck, chest wall, upper back, and lower back. Spasms in these muscles can be a result of an injury or they may develop over time because of arthritic changes in the spine. Systemic illnesses like diabetes, anemia (low red blood cell count), kidney disease, and thyroid and other hormone issues are also potential causes of muscle spasms.

Diseases of the nervous system, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, or spinal cord injury, can be associated with muscle spasm.

Smooth muscle can also go into spasm. When a hollow structure filled with air or fluid is squeezed by the muscle spasm, significant pain may occur, since the fluid or air cannot be compressed. For example, smooth muscle in the intestinal wall can go into spasm, causing waves of pain called colic. Colicky pain which tends to come and go may also occur within the bile duct that empties the gallbladder and may develop after eating.

  • When kidney stones try to pass through the urinary tract, the smooth muscles that are in the walls of the ureter (that connects the kidney to the bladder) may spasm rhythmically and cause significant pain. Often this type of pain is associated with nausea and vomiting and is called renal colic.
  • Muscles that surround the esophagus can go into spasm when irritation occurs with reflux esophagitis or GERD.
  • Diarrhea can be associated with colicky pain, where the muscles within the colon wall spasm just before a watery bowel movement.
  • Menstrual cramps occur when the walls of the uterus contract forcefully.

The coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle with blood also have smooth muscle within their walls that may go into spasm. This can cause chest pain that may be indistinguishable from the pain of coronary artery disease (where plaque has accumulated and narrowed the arteries). Coronary artery spasm often occurs in smokers or those who have high cholesterol blood levels. Coronary artery spasm may be triggered by stress, alcohol withdrawal, stimulant drug abuse or medications that can constrict or narrow blood vessels. Coronary artery spasm is also known as Prinzmetal's angina.

Reviewed on 7/14/2014

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