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What are muscle spasms, and what do they feel like?

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Muscle spasms are involuntary contractions that can cause twitching, cramping, and sometimes pain.
Medically reviewed by Angela M. Bell, MD, FACP
Written by Jennifer Thomas
Updated on September 27, 2023

Muscle spasms (aka muscle cramps) are unexpected but also very common. Usually, they’re not cause for concern, but regular spasms can also indicate a more serious problem, such as kidney disease or a nerve injury.

Here’s what to know about muscle spasms and when they might signal a bigger issue.

What are muscle spasms?

A muscle spasm is the involuntary tightening (contraction) of a muscle. They’re most common in the hands, feet, calves, thighs, and back.

What do muscle spasms feel like?

Not all muscle spasms cause noticeable symptoms. But people may experience:

  • sudden sharp pain
  • rapid twitching of the muscle
  • cramping and immobility in the muscle
  • a noticeable hardening of the muscle

How long do muscle spasms last?

Muscle spasms and cramps can last anywhere from a few seconds to 15 minutes or longer. Spasms may recur before disappearing fully, and the muscle may feel sore for some time afterward.

Causes of muscle spasms

Muscle spasms can happen to anyone, anytime, including when you’re asleep. While you can’t always prevent them, there are some common spasm causes that are easy enough to fix. They include:

  • Dehydration: Muscles require adequate intake of fluids and electrolytes to support proper function, such as regulating muscle contractions. Dehydration lowers fluid and electrolyte levels and can affect these processes.
  • Muscle overuse: Exercising too hard too often or simply holding a muscle in the same position for a long time can cause muscle spasms.
  • Stress: When you’re stressed, your body releases hormones that can cause your muscles to tense. This can lead to spasms.

How to treat or stop a muscle spasm

There’s no single guaranteed way to stop a muscle spasm, but these steps can help ease that tense muscle:

  • lengthen the muscle through movement
  • massage the area
  • apply heat or ice
  • take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol)

What if my muscle spasms keep coming back?

Muscle spasms are common and typically not a cause for concern. There are times, though, when muscle spasms may indicate a more serious underlying health condition, especially if they’re paired with symptoms such as:

  • weakness in your hands or feet
  • loss of bowel function
  • inability to urinate
  • loss of sensation in the groin or genital area
  • walking or balance problems
  • shooting pain in the arm or leg

These symptoms may indicate a more serious condition relating to the spinal cord or severe damage to a spinal nerve. It’s important to have these symptoms evaluated by a doctor immediately to avoid permanent damage.

Nerve damage, known as neuropathy, can result from an injury, diabetes, or an autoimmune disease such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. When nerves become damaged, it can disrupt communication between the body and the brain and cause muscle spasms. Muscle spasms are also sometimes a symptom of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis, kidney disease, or hypothyroidism.

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When in doubt, talk with your doctor about your muscle spasms. In instances where muscle spasms are the result of an underlying condition, and home remedies do not work, doctors can prescribe muscle relaxants, including:

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How to keep muscle spasms at bay

You can’t always stop a muscle spasm from happening. But these lifestyle habits may help:

  • stay physically active
  • avoid exercising in hot weather
  • stretch regularly
  • stay hydrated

If your muscle cramps often happen during or after intense exercise, consider sipping water with added electrolytes. A small 2021 study observed people running downhill on a treadmill in a hot room for 40–60 minutes. Those who drank electrolyte-enhanced water had significantly less cramping than those who hydrated with plain water.

Muscle cramps are annoying. But a few healthy habits can cut your chances of a painful seize-up.

Summary

Muscle spasms are involuntary contractions that can cause cramping, twitching, and local pain. They often result from muscle overuse, dehydration, or an electrolyte imbalance.

Muscle spasms are typically not a cause for concern. However they can be a symptom of several underlying health conditions affecting muscles or nerves.

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