Having a muscle seize up can be the craziest (painful!) feeling. Luckily, there's not much to worry about. Here's what you need to know.

By Lauren Cardarelli and Lauren Mazzo
Updated February 18, 2020
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Credit: Anna Golant/AVIcon/Shutterstock

Charley horse. Also known as the "WTH!?" pain that can seriously cramp your stride at a moment's notice. What is a muscle spasm anyway, is it the same thing as a muscle cramp, what causes them, and how can you curb the killer seize-ups?

We took muscle spasms 101 from neuromusculoskeletal disorder specialist Matthew Meyers, M.S., of Velocity Sports Medicine in West Westport, Connecticut, so you can ditch the twitch for good.

Panicking because you're having a muscle cramp RN? Here's the basic info you're looking for:

  • What is it? A muscle spasm is an involuntary contraction of one or more muscle. A muscle cramp is simply a sustained (aka longer-lasting) muscle spasm.
  • What causes them? Muscle spasms can be caused by overexertion, stretching too far, dehydration, electrolyte deficiency, and muscle tightness, fatigue, or trauma.
  • How do you make a muscle spasm stop? Try massaging and stretching the muscle that's cramping.
  • Should you worry? Nope - they're generally harmless and go away on their own.

What Is a Muscle Spasm? How About a Muscle Cramp?

It might feel like a BFD, but muscle spasms are pretty simple: It's a sudden and involuntary contraction of one or more of your muscles, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). The good news is that, although it may be painful and temporarily stop you from using the affected muscle, they're generally harmless.

What about muscle cramps? For all intents and purposes, a muscle cramp is pretty much the same as a muscle spasm. While there's no true studied difference between the two, some experts consider a sustained muscle spasm to be a muscle cramp, according to the Medical University of South Carolina.

What Causes Muscle Spasms and Cramps?

Overexertion, stretching past your limits (or not stretching enough), muscle fatigue or trauma, dehydration, and electrolyte deficiency are among the most common causes of muscle spasms.

Good ol' H2O plays a pivotal role in keeping electrolyte levels steady for proper function of the muscle, says Meyers. So make sure you're getting in enough glasses and hydrating with a sports drink (like Gatorade or one of these other options), after a tough workout to replenish the electrolytes you lost. And if you're making multiple coffee runs a day, it may be time to cut back—too much caffeine can spur muscle cramps and spasms, too.

Muscles that are prone to tightness—like the pectorals, lower back, hip flexors, and calves—also tend to have spasms more often, simply because they're commonly exhausted and shortened. "A muscle that spasms frequently happens as a result of overstretching," explains Meyers. "So when a tightness-prone or chronically shortened muscle is stretched beyond its desired range of motion, it protectively spasms to avoid tearing or, in more extreme cases, rupturing."

How to Treat Muscle Spasms and Cramps

Is there any way to stop a muscle spasm after it's started? Well, this quick-fix sounds weird, but it's worth a try: Eat a tablespoon of yellow mustard, according to Meyers. "Some studies show it is the turmeric, some show that it is the acetic acid," he says. "Either way, we know that it is an effective way to slow or stop an active muscle spasm." (It's plausible; turmeric does have tons of health benefits, after all.)

Otherwise, your best bet is to give your body a little TLC: Gently stretch and massage the cramping muscle, and hold it in a stretched position until it stops, according to the AAOS. For example, if you're having a muscle spasm in the bottom of your foot, sit on the floor with your foot in front of you, and stretch your toes back toward your face. Hold it until the muscle cramp subsides. If you have a muscle cramp in your calf, try a traditional calf stretch with your hands against the wall.

How to Prevent Muscle Spasms

Balance is power when it comes to preventing muscle cramps. "Training each muscle group evenly is important, so biceps and triceps, and hip flexors and extensors should get equal amounts of love," says Meyers. (Here's how to diagnose and fix your muscular imbalances.) Focus on areas that tend to be tight, and incorporate active stretches like lunges and lateral squats pre-sweat sesh. Then afterward, do static holds to lengthen the muscle tissue.

"Contract-relax stretching is a focused type of stretch that tries to trick the nervous system into stretching further, using breath to guide into a deeper stretch," explains Meyers. For example, when stretching the hamstring, lie on your back and lift your leg to the ceiling. Push your leg down toward the ground to activate the hamstring before slowly bringing your leg back toward your head and breathing into a deep, relaxed elongation of the muscle.

Hydration and a healthy diet, with special attention to macronutrition (proteins, fats, and carbs) and micronutriton (vitamins and minerals like calcium, magnesium, and potassium) is also key to keeping muscle spasms in check.

Otherwise, "ice painful muscles and heat when tight or achy," advises Meyers. Therapies like active release techniques, myofascial release, and electric stimulation can also be extremely helpful. And don't forget to hit the foam roller—we like these foam rolling exercises.

Finally, be sure to give yourself ample time to warm up and cool down, scheduling rest days to prevent overtraining and ensure healing.

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