Have you ever had a sharp muscle cramp or a ”twitchy” muscle spasm during or after a workout? You’re doing a set of squat jumps or a push-up and suddenly a muscle is misbehaving! People sometimes use the terms muscle cramp and muscle spasm interchangeably, but a cramp and a spasm are two distinct entities. What they have in common is that both can happen during or after exercise or at any other time. However, one is typically painful while the other is not. The reality is you’d rather not have either! What’s the difference between the two and what can you do to avoid them?
Muscle cramps are decidedly painful. A cramp is a sharp pain you feel when an entire muscle suddenly shortens. A sudden, unexpected contraction of a muscle can be extremely uncomfortable. Some people liken the sensation to a knife going into the muscle. Thankfully, muscle cramps are usually short-lived. Most of the time, they subside after a minute or two, however, you may experience some soreness in the area that persists for a few days afterward.
What causes muscle cramps? Unfortunately, no one knows the exact cause. You might have heard that an electrolyte imbalance, usually an imbalance in calcium, potassium, magnesium, or sodium, is a factor, but this has never been proven. In fact, recent research suggests this probably isn’t why most muscle cramps occur. If that were the case, you would expect cramping to occur in more than one muscle at a time and that usually doesn’t happen. Another theory is that dehydration plays a role in muscle cramps. Again, this may be a factor in some cases, but probably isn’t the triggering event in every case.
Another theory is that muscle cramps are brought on by muscle fatigue. The muscle gets tired and expresses its discontent by cramping. This is a more likely explanation since muscle cramps often come on after a tough workout or after an exercise session that’s long in duration. It’s also possible that the cause of muscle cramps is multi-factorial. Some may be due to fatigue while an electrolyte imbalance or dehydration may play a role in other cases. There’s still a lot we don’t know about muscle cramps!
Some medications increase the risk of developing a cramp. Certain drugs may do this by altering the sodium or potassium balance in the body. This lends further support to the theory that electrolyte imbalances and dehydration are a contributor to some cases of muscle cramping. Some medications that increase the risk of muscle cramps are diuretics, some blood pressure medications, asthma medications, and statins. Ask your physician if you’re taking a medication that places you at higher risk.
One precaution: cramping in the calves during exercise can sometimes be a sign of poor circulation. This can happen if you have a blockage in an artery that carries blood to the lower legs. Also, damage to nerves, such as peripheral neuropathy, or a pinched nerve can be a cause. If you have lots of muscle cramps, see your physician.
You can experience muscle cramps during or after exercise, but they sometimes come on suddenly in the middle of the night and awaken you from a sound sleep. If you get a leg cramp, here’s what to do. Slowly lift flex your toes upward toward your knee and hold this position until the cramp subsides. Ahh! Much better. You can do this for cramps you experience during exercise as well.
A muscle spasm is an involuntary contraction of a portion of a muscle. Like muscle cramps, they’re more common after an exhausting workout. Unlike a muscle cramp that’s disruptively painful, muscle spasms are not. Instead, they feel more like a muscle twitch. The medical term for these twitches is “fasciculations.” According to the journal Neurology, 70% of people have fasciculations at some point in their life and most are benign. In other words, nothing sinister is causing them. Although people with a serious neurological disorder called ALS experience muscle spasms, they usually have other symptoms as well, like muscle weakness.
A twitching eyelid is a common type of fasciculation. Ever had one? Out of the blue, your eyelid starts twitching and won’t stop. You may have experienced one after spending too much time in front of a computer screen. Sometimes, the twitching continues for days before subsiding. However, you can experience fasciculations in any muscle. The most common site after a strenuous workout is a calf or thigh muscle.
As with muscle cramps, scientists aren’t completely sure what causes muscle spasms or fasciculations. As with muscle cramps, dehydration or an electrolyte imbalance may be a factor, and as with muscle cramps, fatigue can cause the muscle to misfire. Also, some drugs increase the risk of muscle spasms, including common ones like caffeine, cigarettes, and alcohol. Under stress lately? Muscle fasciculations are more common in people who are anxious or stressed. If you have fasciculations, check your medication list and ask your physician if you’re taking something that places you at higher risk.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do to prevent muscle spasms, other than avoiding triggers, like caffeine and not over-exercising. It’s also important to drink enough fluid before, during, and after a workout. If you have persistent fasciculations that won’t go away, have them frequently, or they involve more than a single muscle, see your physician.
The Bottom Line
Muscle cramps and spasms are inconvenient but quite common. In most cases, they resolve on their own. Even though these entities aren’t completely understood, you may reduce your risk by drinking enough fluid, eating a mineral-rich diet, and not exercising to exhaustion. Don’t forget, you need rest days too! If possible, exercise in a cool environment where you’ll sweat less.
· WebMD.com. “Why Is My Leg Cramping? What Can Help?”
· Medical News Today. “Benign fasciculation syndrome: What causes muscle fasciculations?