It’s leg day and you’re killing your workout. Your squats are low, your deadlifts are strong, and your box jumps are high — then all of a sudden, your back starts screaming. You try walking it off, but it turns into a full-blown muscle spasm that has you begging for mercy. What gives?
If you’ve never experienced a muscle spasm, consider yourself lucky. For the rest of us, knowing how to prevent them and what to do when one strikes can mean the difference between crawling to your car and standing upright when you leave the gym.
What is a muscle spasm, really?
Simply put, a muscle spasm is when a muscle stays in a contracted state involuntarily. This produces a tight painful contraction that you can’t relax — like when you tried to walk off your back spasm and nothing seemed to work.
Lots of people use the terms muscle spasm and cramp interchangeably, but they are not quite the same thing, explains physical therapist Mark Kozuki, DPT. While similar in nature, most often cramps are a sustained pain in the muscle, while spasms tend to quickly come and go. Additionally, people will refer to spasms being in their hips, back, or trunk muscles, while muscle cramps often occur in the calves, feet, and hamstrings.
What causes your muscles to act this way?
There are a wide range of answers. Dehydration is probably the most common cause, but other causes include a potassium deficiency (which is why it’s a good idea to eat a banana before your workout), and performing a heavy lift and then having that muscle stay in a high-threshold state. For example, Kozuki says, if you do a bicep curl with heavy weight and then you go home and shampoo your hair, the muscle can spasm.
“Sometimes muscle spasms can be caused by something as simple as fatigue and lack of available energy,” explains Dr. Adam Rivadeneyra, a sports medicine physician with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in California. He also points to bad movement patterns, which can overwork a muscle, causing it to spasm.
You should also pay attention to environmental conditions, such as overly humid or very cold weather. Rivadeneyra says these weather extremes can make proper warm-up and cooldown more difficult. They also make it more difficult to manage your hydration.
How do you treat muscle spasms?
Even though muscle spasms are painful, the good news is they usually improve with rest, massage, stretching, ice, and hydration. If the spasms become chronic or the tightness gets worse, Rivadeneyra says it’s better to get treated by a physician or physical therapist. They can help you figure out why the spasm is occurring.
Being seen by a professional can also rule out any other medical issues that may be going on. If you do go that route, he says your treatment will most likely involve exercise to improve movement patterns, symmetry, and strengthen deficient areas. You may also have other treatments such as acupuncture, massage, chiropractic adjustment or trigger point injections.
If you’re managing treatment on your own, Kozuki says one of the best ways to treat muscle spasms is through soft tissue work. “If you don’t work regularly with a professional, doing self soft tissue release using a foam roller or ball provides specific release to these muscles,” he explains.
Is there a way to prevent muscle spasms?
Yes, says Kozuki. In fact, one of the best ways to treat muscle spasms is to not let them happen in the first place. The best place to start is with hydration, which is key to preventing muscle spasms. You can always check the color of your urine if you’re not sure about your hydration levels: “the clearer the better,” says Kozuki.
You also need to stretch before workouts (as if we haven’t told you dozens of times before) and listen to your body. “The muscle spasms and cramping are a byproduct of over-training,” explains Kozuki. That’s why it’s important to rest properly between activities and make sure you’re allowing enough time to warm-up and cool-down. And don’t forget to practice good form during exercise. This can also help prevent spasms, according to Rivadeneyra.