Muscle Spasms - Experience

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What is a muscle spasm?

A muscle spasm, or muscle cramp, is an involuntary contraction of a muscle. Muscle spasms occur suddenly, usually resolve quickly, and are often painful.

A muscle spasm is different than a muscle twitch. A muscle twitch, or fasciculation, is an uncontrolled fine movement of a small segment of a larger muscle that can be seen under the skin.

Muscles are complex structures that cause movement in the body. There are three types of muscle in the body:

  • Heart muscle pumps blood (cardiac muscle).
  • Skeletal muscle moves the external body parts, like the arms and legs, and the neck, back and trunk.
  • Smooth muscle moves portions of hollow structures inside the body. Examples include the muscles that line the esophagus, stomach and intestine, muscles that line large arteries and the muscles of the uterus.

Skeletal muscles are anchored to bone, either directly or by a tendon. When the muscle contracts, the associated structure moves. This allows arms to lift, legs to run, and the face to smile. Most of these muscles are under willful or conscious control of the brain. This type of muscle is striated or striped with dark-colored muscles fibers containing large amounts of myoglobin, the protein that helps carry oxygen and light-colored fibers that have lesser amounts of the protein. The contraction of a skeletal muscle requires numerous steps within cells and fibers that need oxygen, electrolytes, and glucose, which are supplied by the bloodstream.

Smooth muscle is located in the walls of hollow internal structures in the body, like the arteries, intestines, bladder, and iris of the eye. They tend to circle the structure and when they contract, the hollow structure is squeezed. These muscles are involuntary and are controlled by the unconscious part of our brain function using the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system can run in the background, regulating body processes automatically for us. There is a balance between the sympathetic system (adrenergic nerves) that speed things up and the parasympathetic system (cholinergic nerves) that slow things down. These names are based on the type of chemical that is used to transmit signals at the nerve endings. Adrenaline (epinephrine from the sympathetic nervous system) allows the body to respond to stress. Imagine seeing a bear in the woods; your heart beats faster, your palms get sweaty, your eyes dilate, your hair stands on end, and your bowels move. Acetylcholine is the chemical that is the anti-adrenaline and is involved in the parasympathetic nervous system. Smooth muscle has the same basic contraction mechanism as skeletal muscle, though different proteins are involved.

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See what others are saying

Comment from: American girl, 55-64 Female (Patient) Published: July 21

I have had Charlie horses, stomach cramps and trigger finger but I am wanting to know what these leg cramps are. Mostly in the evening, even before I fall asleep, my legs spasm out of control and jerk back and forth. They draw up, kick out and hurt. I cannot be still if I try. Sometimes my legs will kick up in the air, in quick repetitive motions, as well as make my knee bend and quickly burst back out. My husband says at night it continues. I do not notice it at night but if I sit for long periods of time, say 30 to 40 minutes, my legs begin their dancing painful routine. There is no rhyme or reason to it. I have trouble walking at times in terms of getting my body ready to move.

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Comment from: judda, 65-74 Male (Patient) Published: March 29

After a heavy fall in on January 14 I have progressive muscle problems in my back. The muscle spasms started in my lower back and was debilitating, if I lay down I could not get up without severe pain and I could not stoop to pick something up from knee height. Over the ten weeks I have started cramping in other back muscles without cause or reason. The latest is below my left shoulder and is affecting my breathing.

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