Spasms

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What are spasms?

Spasms are uncontrolled, repetitive contractions of a muscle. Spasms may occur in any muscle in your body, such as those in your face, fingers or calves. Spasms can be brief or long lasting, uncomfortable or painful.

A spasm may also be referred to as a muscle cramp. Leg cramps, sometimes called charley horses, are sudden and uncontrollable muscle contractions or spasms. They can occur with exercise or while sleeping and usually resolve just as quickly as they came. The pain from muscle cramps can be intense, but can often be relieved with gentle stretching and massage. Twitches are a mild form of spasms and may be short lived or permanent. Tetany is the term used to refer to prolonged muscle spasms.

Spasms have many causes, and their severity can vary substantially. Minor spasms may be the result of exercise or overuse of a muscle. Some spasms may be the result of a neurological condition or injury. Serious causes of spasms include kidney disease, seizure, and stroke.

Spasms and cramps can also be caused by neuromuscular disorders, such as multiple sclerosis or a spinal cord injury. Movement disorders called dystonias also lead to forceful contractions. Dystonias can be a complication of stroke. Certain medications can cause involuntary muscle contractions as well.

Muscle spams by themselves are rarely serious, but when combined with other symptoms, they may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition such as a stroke. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, are experiencing slurred speech and other serious symptoms, such as fainting or change in level of consciousness or lethargy; vomiting; severe headache; and sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body.

If your spasms persist or cause you concern, seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with spasms?

Spasms may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the muscles may also involve other body systems.

Symptoms that may occur along with spasms

Spasms may accompany other symptoms affecting other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, spasms may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition, such as a stroke, that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Absent or diminished pulses
  • Fainting or change in level of consciousness or lethargy
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Loss of vision or changes in vision, such as double vision
  • Paralysis or inability to move a body part
  • Seizure
  • Severe headache
  • Slurred speech
  • Sudden difficulty with memory, thinking, talking, comprehension, writing or reading
  • Sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body
  • Vomiting

What causes spasms?

There are many causes of spasms, and they vary substantially in severity. The location and duration of the spasm depends on the underlying cause. Minor and short-lived twitches may simply be the result of exercise or overuse of a muscle. Long-term spasms may be the result of a neurological condition, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease; a severe neuromuscular disease that causes muscle weakness and disability) or Parkinson’s disease (brain disorder that impairs movement and coordination).

Low levels of calcium in the blood may be caused by a variety of diseases, disorders and conditions that can cause muscle spasms. In some cases, twitches may be the result of a serious condition, such as a seizure or stroke.

Causes of spasms related to hypocalcemia

Very low levels of calcium in the body can cause spasms. The medical term for low calcium is hypocalcemia. Causes of hypocalcemia leading to spasms include:

Neurological causes of spasms

Spasms may be caused by conditions affecting the nervous system including:

  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease; a severe neuromuscular disease that causes muscle weakness and disability)

  • Bell’s palsy (swollen or inflamed nerve that controls facial muscles)

  • Huntington’s disease (hereditary degenerative brain disorder)

  • Multiple sclerosis (disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, causing weakness, coordination and balance difficulties, and other problems)

  • Muscular dystrophy (inherited disorder that causes a progressive loss of muscle tissue and muscle weakness)

  • Parkinson’s disease (brain disorder that impairs movement and coordination)

  • Peripheral neuropathy (nerve compression)

  • Tourette’s syndrome (disorder characterized by repeated tics and rapid movements)

Medications and substances that can cause spasms

Medications that can cause spasms and cramps include:

  • ACE inhibitors for lowering blood pressure

  • Cocaine

  • Corticosteroids

  • Diuretics (“water pills”)

  • Estrogens

  • Statins for lowering cholesterol

  • Toxins such as nerve gas or insecticides

  • Zidovudine

    Other causes of spasms

    Spasms can also be caused by:

    • Dehydration

    • Electrolyte abnormalities

    • Immobility (resting too long in same position)

    • Intense and prolonged exercise

    • Menstrual cramps

    • Overuse injury (caused by overuse of a muscle)

    • Peripheral nerve damage

    Serious or life-threatening causes of spasms

    In some cases, spasms may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These conditions include:

    Questions for diagnosing the cause of spasms

    To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your spasms including:

    • How long have you experienced spasms?

    • How severe are the spasms?

    • What part of your body is affected by the spasms?

    • What is your sleep posture?

    • Are you receiving hemodialysis?

    • Are your spasms recurrent?

    • Do you have any other symptoms?

    • What medications are you taking?

    • Have you changed your medications recently?

    What are the potential complications of spasms?

    Because spasms can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

    • Difficulty breathing

    • Disability

    • Impaired balance and coordination

    • Neurological problems such as memory loss, confusion, and encephalitis

    • Organ failure or dysfunction

    • Paralysis

    • Permanent loss of sensation

    • Progression of symptoms

    • Seizures and tremors

    • Unconsciousness and coma

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    Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
    Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 2
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    THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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    2. Hand or foot spasms. MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003194.htm
    3. Maquirriain J, Merello M. The athlete with muscular cramps: clinical approach. J Am Acad Orthop Surg 2007; 15:425