Muscle spasms can hit any time of day, causing sudden pain, throbbing and cramping that can seem unbearable. They are referred to as muscle cramps, leg cramps or a “charley horse.”
If you’re tired of experiencing throbbing muscle pains or spasms that bring you down, it’s time to make some changes to your diet, posture, fluid intake and exercise routine — and implement some natural muscle ache treatments.
What Are Muscle Spasms?
What exactly are muscle spasms? They’re involuntary contractions of one or more muscles. In other words, during a leg, neck or back spasm, your muscles cramp up and tighten without you even trying to move them, and they stay this way for a period of time because they’re unable to relax. (1)
Muscle pains and spasms are most likely to occur in the feet, lower back and legs (especially the hamstrings, quadriceps and calve), but you get them anywhere: your abdomen, around your ribs, your hands, ankles, etc. You might notice that they come and go depending on what you’ve been eating, your sleeping patterns and, for women, if it’s “that time of the month.”
Some examples of muscle spasms you’ve probably experienced at some point include menstrual cramps, diarrhea and lower back pain. One of the most common and agonizing types of muscle spasms is the charley horse, which causes cramping in the calf muscles so bad that it can wake you right up out of sleep. Other types can kick in when you stand up, get out of bed in the morning or just after exercising.
The older you get, the more likely you are to suffer from occasional muscle spasms. Why? We gradually lose muscle mass each year as we age, which means there’s more pressure on our remaining muscles to support our body weight.
Whether you’re getting older and losing muscle mass or not, just about everyone experiences muscle spasms at one time or another. People who are especially prone to dealing with muscle cramps frequently include: anyone with a poor diet (since some nutrients are natural muscle relaxers), poor circulation, high levels of inflammation, and athletes and women who are pregnant or experiencing PMS.
6 Natural Treatments for Muscle Spasms
1. Prevent Electrolyte Imbalances
A potassium and/or magnesium deficiency can contribute to muscle spasms. If you’ve been working out a lot without refueling afterward, you’re beginning your menstrual cycle soon or you eat a mostly processed diet that’s low in fresh foods, you could be low in these nutrients that help muscles contract normally.
Low potassium (hypokalemia), which develops when potassium in your blood drops below normal, is one of the most common reasons people deal with leg cramps (including those that strike in the middle of the night, such as charley horses), high blood pressure and low energy. (2)
Aside from electrolytes such as electrolyte drinks, some research suggests that being low in B vitamins can also increase cramps, especially in your legs. (3) Aim to get more B vitamins from cage-free eggs, grass-fed meat, wild-caught fish, ancient grains and legumes.
2. Stretch and Massage Your Muscles
Staying active a great way to prevent muscle spasms since people who are physically fit maintain more muscle mass and usually have less inflammation, plus they tend to be more flexible. (4) Proper warm-ups and cool-downs before and after exercise can help prevent muscles from becoming overly fatigued, strained or pulled. Before a workout try warming up by jogging in place, gently rehearsing the motions of the exercise to follow, getting your heart rate up, and doing dynamic movements that bring blood to your major muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints.
When you’re done exercising, spend 10–15 minutes stretching your major muscle groups by holding stretches for at least 20–30 seconds. Make sure to stretch some of the most vulnerable areas, including your hamstrings, quadriceps and ankles. You can also make muscles become more resilient when you’re going about your day-to-day activities, such as walking with good posture and proper form in your feet, and sitting upright (not slouched) when you’re at a desk.
Frequently deal with charley horse? Try this stretch once the pain comes on: Sit down with your legs straight in front of you and pull your toes/top of your feet back toward you to stretch your hamstring. If your leg cramps affect the back of your thighs (your quadriceps), bend your affected leg and grab your foot behind you, pulling your foot up toward your back to stretch out the front of your thigh.
3. Stay Hydrated
Dehydration can cause muscles to spasm and cramp up. To prevent dehydration, make sure you drink enough water every day based on your body size (the old standard of eight ounces, eight times per day might be enough, but necessary if you’re larger and very active). If the weather is very hot, you’re sweating, you’ve been exercising or drinking alcohol, make sure to have even more than normal to stay hydrated. This helps prevents muscle problems caused by heat exhaustion, intense thirst or heavy sweating.
4. Use Ice or Heat Packs on Sensitive Muscles
Heat relaxes muscles and can be beneficial if you deal with pain, tightness or cramping. Try applying heat to areas where you frequently get spasms by using a warmed towel or heating pad. Lay the hot compress on tense or tight muscles while you massage them, or try using a steam room or sauna for all-over heat — perhaps even an infrared sauna.
You can do the same using an ice pack applied to swollen or painful areas several times per day.
5. Fix Your Posture
Being hunched over for many hours a day or exercising and walking with bad posture can put you at risk for muscle pain, including back spasms or muscle spasms in the legs and neck (including a stiff neck). For example, kyphosis is a condition caused by rounding or forward curvature of the spine, which can lead to back spasms, general back pain and overall stiffness.
Being slouched over can weaken your neck muscles over time while also straining your back muscles, eventually increasing inflammation in your upper back and shoulder blades. Try seeing a chiropractor for adjustments or physical therapist if the condition becomes frequent and serious enough, or at least consider using a posture-correcting chair, such as an ergonomic chair, at work for support if you sit for many hours a day.
6. Take a Bath with Epsom Salt
Epsom salt is naturally rich in magnesium that seeps into your skin to reach tense muscles when you add it to a warm bath. Epsom salts are an easy way to prevent magnesium deficiency, ease stress, soothe muscles and detoxify the body. The heat also helps relax muscles and can even ease anxiety if this is contributing to tightness in your back or neck.
If you don’t have a bath at home, use your shower head and aim it at cramped muscles. After a hot shower you can massage relaxing or pain-killing essential oils into muscles, including peppermint or lavender oils.
Muscle Spasms vs. Pulled Muscles: What’s the Difference?
While muscle spasms tend to be pretty harmless and short-lived, muscle pulls can be another story. A pulled muscle happens when your muscle become strained, torn or injured. This can occur due to overuse, built-up inflammation or sudden movements. There are different types of muscle pulls: acute (which come on suddenly from trauma, a fall or twist) that last for a shorter period of time and overuse injuries that develop gradually due to inflammation. (5)
Some examples of acute muscle pulls include twisting/spraining your ankle or “throwing out” your back. Overuse muscle pulls usually occur in athletes or people who are active, especially if they’ve been using a muscle repeatedly without allowing enough time between activity for muscle tissues to heal. Two types of overuse muscle pulls include tendonitis and bursitis.
How can you tell if you’re dealing with a muscle pull and not just a spasm? Pay attention to the circumstances: Did you experience a sudden blow or injury? Did you hear a pop or snap? Are you possibly dehydrated? You can also try applying pressure to the painful area to check if it feels more like a “knot” or deep pain.
Look for signs of swelling and inflammation, which can signify a pull. Try very gently moving the strained area, stretching, or pressing your thumb and fingers into where it hurts. If this helps break up the pain, it’s likely a spasm or cramp. If this feels very painful, you’re probably dealing with a pull since pulled muscles don’t relax once you stretch them.
What Causes Muscle Spasms?
Normally, muscles are controlled through signals sent via your nerves, but there are all sorts of reasons why these signals can malfunction and muscle cramps or spasms can develop. If you can identify with any of the situations below, this might be the root cause of your muscle spasms: (6)
- your diet is somewhat poor, which means you might be taking in too much sodium and not enough key electrolytes like magnesium or potassium
- you experience poor blood circulation (you might have cold hands or feet or a purple/blueish color in your toes and fingers)
- you have spasms after holding a position for a long time or sitting down for long periods with bad posture (which might affect your lower back or neck)
- you’re dehydrated, possibly from working out in the heat without drinking enough water or from drinking alcohol
- you’ve been exercising and putting lots of pressure on your leg muscles, especially your feet and calf muscles
- you tend to skip warming up or stretching before exercise and don’t properly stretch afterward
- you’ve just finished long-distance exercising, such as running or cycling, which causes muscle fatigue and possibly electrolyte imbalance
- you were recently injured, especially around your spinal cord, lower back or or neck, which might have caused nerves to become pinched
- you’re currently pregnant — spasms are more common in pregnant women, plus a calcium deficiency can sometimes cause pregnant women to have muscle cramping
- you’re expecting to get your menstrual cycle soon
- you take medications that are diuretics (causing you to lose water/fluids) that affect your blood pressure or treat high cholesterol (statins)
- you have an existing medical condition, such as diabetes, liver disease or thyroid disorder, that affects fluid levels
In most cases, muscle spasms or cramps are nothing serious and will go away once you address the underlying problem that’s causing them. But sometimes they can indicate that you have a more serious condition that might cause damage to your nerves, changes in blood pressure, electrolyte imbalances or abnormal fluid levels. If you experience muscle spasms more and more frequently and the lifestyle changes above don’t help resolve them, talk to your doctor about having some tests done to make sure there’s not a lurking chronic disorder that’s causing your pain.
Here are some of the common ways that muscle spasms can develop:
- Muscles stop receiving blood and nutrients: When you have poor circulation and high levels of inflammation, your muscles don’t receive enough blood, oxygen and electrolytes to keep them stable. This might happen because your arteries are in poor shape, which cuts off the supply of blood to your limbs most. Because your toes, ankles and calves are some of the farthest body parts from your heart, this is one reason these areas are most prone to muscle pains. Low blood supply in your legs is called arteriosclerosis of the extremities and is one of the most common causes of muscle cramps.
- Electrolyte levels fall too low: Muscles require enough minerals to move, contract and relax, so having low potassium, low calcium or magnesium deficiency can cause cramping and pain. Some of the ways these become depleted are through exercise or eating a poor diet that’s low in nutrient-packed vegetables and fruits, plus high in sodium. Some medications also cause electrolyte levels to change, such as those for treating high blood pressure.
- Dehydration: Muscles can spasm when your fluid intake is low or when you’ve been consuming diuretics that increase urination, including alcohol, some herbal teas, or certain medications and prescriptions. That’s because your body only has so much fluid to go around, so when you’re running low and experiencing dehydration, fluid is drawn away from muscles. Instead your body prioritizes keeping vital fluids in parts of your body that are needed to keep you alive (your brain and other vital organs). The problem is that there’s many nerves that connect to muscles and control your movements, but these only work properly when they’re surrounded by enough water and sodium. When this ratio is off and you’re dehydrated, muscles become hypersensitive and involuntarily contract. (7)
- Nerves become pinched or compressed: Sometimes cramps in your leg muscles or lower back are actually caused by compressed or pinched nerves in your spine. Poor posture can contribute to stress accumulating in your lumbar stenosis (spine), which can trigger spasms when you start moving or suddenly change positions.
Takeaways on Muscle Spasms
- Muscle spasms are involuntary contractions of one or more muscles.
- Muscle spasms are most likely to occur in the feet, lower back and legs, but you can get them anywhere.
- One of the most common and agonizing types of muscle spasms is the “charley horse,” which causes cramping in the calf muscles so bad that it can wake you right up out of sleep.
- The older you get, the more likely you are to suffer from occasional muscle spasms.
- You can naturally treat muscle spasms by preventing electrolyte imbalances, stretching and massaging your muscles, staying hydrated, using ice or heat packs on sensitive muscles, fixing your posture, and taking a bath with epsom salt.
- Pulled muscles usually result from injury, while muscle spasms aren’t necessarily due to injury.
- The most common ways muscle spasms develop include muscles stop receiving blood and nutrients, electrolyte levels fall too low, you’re dehydrated, and nerves become pinched or compressed.