Today's Medicine

Muscle Spasms: When They’re More Than Just a Pain in the Neck

Published: Jan. 13, 2022

Have you ever reached for something or picked something up only to find yourself nearly crippled with sharp, shooting back pain? What about that same kind of pain in your legs after a long day on your feet? If so, you may have experienced a muscle spasm – and it probably wasn’t caused by the reaching or lying down at the end of the day. Your muscle was likely strained or fatigued and trying to protect itself from further damage.

If you’re all too familiar with spasms, it’s time to give your muscles some TLC.

What Causes Spasms?

A muscle spasm is an involuntary contraction of muscle fibers – an automatic firing of the muscle instead of normal, purposeful activation. This protective response can feel like tightness, stiffness, cramping or even excruciating pain.

Although spasms typically occur in the calves, neck, shoulders and back, they can show up anywhere depending on the cause.

Overuse is one way a muscle may fatigue and spasm, but other causes include:

  • Abnormal posture or movement patterns
  • Injuries to surrounding body structures
  • Electrolyte or hormone imbalances
  • Dehydration
  • Stress
  • Underlying health conditions

Treatment and Prevention

When it comes to spasm treatment and prevention, there are many things that may help, including:

  • Stretching regularly
  • Staying active while limiting strenuous activity
  • Staying well hydrated
  • Managing stress with self-care techniques
  • Massaging the affected area
  • Applying ice or heat

Supplementing with magnesium and B vitamins is safe for most people. Ensuring that your diet has adequate calcium (through foods such as cheese, yogurt and almonds) and potassium (through foods such as bananas, sweet potatoes and leafy greens) is important, but supplementing these minerals should be done more cautiously, especially in those with underlying health conditions.

In some cases, physical therapy may be necessary, especially if abnormal movement patterns are the cause of your spasms.

If nothing seems to be alleviating your discomfort, certain medications may be helpful.

When To Call Your Provider

Typically, muscle spasms are no cause for great concern.

Ongoing bothersome and unexplained spasms that don’t seem to improve with the previously mentioned self-treatment methods may warrant a conversation with your primary care provider. You may be referred to a physiatrist who can take a closer look at what’s contributing to recurring spasms and offer a solution.

It’s important to note that muscle weakness and certain neurologic conditions may involve spasm-like symptoms. These conditions may also require further evaluation by a physician. 

Bottom line: Don’t ignore recurring spasms when there are experts available who want to help. We’re here to improve your quality of life, especially when it comes to navigating annoying pain and ruling out more serious conditions.

More Resources

About the Author

Growing up, Jeremy Gallant, MD, always wanted to make an impact in people’s lives. He initially wanted to be an NFL player, but his sixth grade teacher encouraged him to instead look for a career where he could improve people’s quality of life. Her advice resonated with Dr. Gallant, and he instead directed his attention to the field of medicine.

During his first year of medical school, he was involved in a car accident that left him with a back injury. Needing treatment to regain motion and alleviate pain, he was introduced to physical medicine and rehabilitation as a patient. He was amazed at the level of commitment and skill doctors had in helping him heal, and it solidified his future specialty. Today, he rehabilitates patients as a physiatrist at Methodist Physicians Clinic - HealthWest.

Dr. Gallant loves helping people regain their lives after a major injury. One of his favorite moments of his career was seeing two of his former patients playing wheelchair basketball. Seeing them move across the court after being injured, and knowing he helped them reach that goal, allowed him to finally reach his lifelong dream: making an impact in people’s lives.

See more articles from Jeremy Gallant, MD
Jeremy Gallant, MD