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Muscle spasms happen due to the sudden contraction of a muscle: The affected muscle pulls tight and may also feel harder than usual.
Muscle spasms can range from minor (for example, the leg or foot cramps you might experience at night sometimes) to more serious (lower back muscle spasms that might stop you in your tracks). These sudden contractions affect other areas too, including the hands, thighs, and abdomen.
What Causes Muscle Spasms?
Muscle spasms often happen because you’re dehydrated, because you’ve exercised without warming up and stretching your muscles beforehand, and because you have overexerted yourself in hot weather.
Certain underlying health problems and medications also can make you more susceptible to muscle spasms. For example, diabetics and people with thyroid disorder are more likely to suffer from muscle spasms. Other possible culprits include the pinched spinal nerves that can occur if you have spinal stenosis and peripheral artery disease, in which cholesterol deposits narrow the arteries in the legs.
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The Role of Medications in Muscle Spasms
Medications that can cause muscle spasms in the legs—those “Charley horses” that can wake you from sleep—include the diuretics, ACE inhibitors, and angiotensin-receptor blockers (ARBs) that are used to treat high blood pressure. These drugs can deplete your levels of certain vital electrolytes, including potassium, magnesium, and sodium—all of which are important in helping to control the nerve impulses that are involved in muscle contraction.
Beta-blockers (used to treat high blood pressure and heart arrhythmia), cholesterol-lowering statins, and bronchodilators (used to treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder) also are reported to cause muscle spasms, though it isn’t clear why.
Easing Muscle Spasms
If your muscle spasms are frequent, severe, and not linked to any obvious cause (such as dehydration), mention them to your doctor, who can arrange for any necessary tests to rule out underlying conditions and/or monitor how well your treatment regimen is working for any diagnosed illnesses.
Your physician also will review any medications you may be taking that might be a factor in your muscle spasms and either modify the dosage or substitute an alternative to see if that solves the problem.
You should also consult your doctor if your muscle spasms are accompanied by redness or swelling of the affected area, or by a feeling of weakness in the muscles involved.
And Finally… Our Tips for Avoiding Muscle Spasms
If you get the “all-clear” on your health, here are some self-help strategies that can bring you relief from muscle spasms:
- Try massaging and stretching the affected muscle.
- Apply ice packs.
- Flex your foot upwards (toes towards your thigh) to ease muscle spasms in your feet and calves. Also, periodically stretch your calf muscles during the day; the easiest way to do this is to stand a foot or so away from a wall, place your hands or forearms on it, and lean your upper body in, keeping your heels flat on the floor.
- Muscle spasms in the thigh can be eased by bending your knee and using your hand to pull your foot towards your buttock. Place your other hand on the wall or another source of support if your balance isn’t good.
- Relax muscle spasms in the back by lying on a mat or folded towel, bending your leg, and gently pulling your knee towards your chest. Repeat with the other knee.
- Always perform some warm-up stretches prior to exercising.
- Avoid strenuous exercise outdoors in extremely hot weather.
- Drink sufficient water in hot weather, and also while exercising.
- Eat a healthy diet. Ask your doctor how much potassium you should consume if you take cardiovascular drugs or blood thinners.
For further reading, see our post “Nocturnal Leg Cramps.”
Originally published in June 2016 and updated regularly.