Have you ever seen a football or basketball player experience a muscle spasm? A spasm, often referred to as a muscle cramp, is a contraction that happens suddenly with little or no stimulation. The contraction and pain last for a few minutes before they gradually diminish.
What many people don’t realize is that these muscle strains are not just confined to athletes who do vigorous exercise. If you have ever suffered from lower back pain, you’ve probably experienced a muscle spasm. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent this injury and ease the pain naturally.
What Causes Spasms?
Anyone can experience a muscle spasm. Beside the back, they are common in the calves, feet and hands. For muscles to contract, electrical signals from the brain travel through the spinal cord along nerves called motor neurons. Whenever this process is interrupted, spasms can occur.
The leading cause of muscle spasms is over exercising. One of the most important things I tell my patients is to listen to their bodies. The reason we experience pain and exhaustion is so that we know when to stop and rest. Just as energy is necessary to contract muscles during exercise, energy is also required to relax muscles, replenishing proteins and calcium ions that are used up during exercise. If these substances are not present, muscles will be unable to relax and spasms may occur.
Dehydration is another common cause of spasms. Insufficient fluids and salts, like sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium, disrupt the balance of calcium ions in your body. This causes both muscles and nerves to function abnormally, increasing your risk of spasms.
Often, spasms occur in muscles that have been strained by stretching or tearing. Inflammation occurs in these strained muscles, leading to pain, difficulty moving and muscle spasms. Most lower back injuries are in fact caused by strain to the lower back muscles, usually from lifting heavy objects, lifting and twisting, or sometimes from a fall.
Prevention without Strain
When it comes to muscle spasms, prevention is the best medicine. If you’ve experienced leg or foot cramps while exercising, pay greater attention to how you’re feeling. If you push too hard, spasms are more likely to occur. Regularly drinking water or sports drinks, especially on hot days, will also prevent spasms.
Cramps like this are common, and most active people experience them at one time or another. Rest the muscle and gently stretch and massage it until the cramping eases. With patience, you should be able to get back to your activity fairly quickly. If your cramps are very frequent or prolonged, see your doctor to rule out other problems. Certain drugs, such as carbamazepine, phenytoin, and quinine, may be responsible for muscle sensitivity.
When it comes to back pain, rest is the key. You should take it easy for two days, and then resume a normal routine that does not put additional strain on the back muscles. Within about two weeks, the muscles should recover. If you don’t see improvements in that time, visit your doctor.
Some people have success preventing cramps with herbs. Try taking gingko biloba or Japanese quince before engaging in physical activity. Some vitamin supplements may also have a preventative effect. Especially taken before bedtime, vitamin E, niacin, calcium, and magnesium have been known to prevent muscle spasms.
It is also important to get many of the vitamins, minerals and nutrients your muscles need through a healthy diet. Regular exercise also keeps the muscles in good condition to resist cramps. This is especially important for preventing lower back injuries. When it comes to muscle strain, it is important to follow your instincts—don’t push too hard, eat well and exercise, and give sore muscles the care they need. Follow those tips, and you’ll be able to recover from muscle spasms quickly and easily.
Mark Bromson, M.D.