Muscle spasms can range from mild twitching to severe pain, according to the Cleveland Clinic. A severe muscle spasm can cause your muscle to tighten into a hard and painful lump. Muscles may also show visible twitching movements. Gentle stretching and massage often relieve these muscle movements.
Read more: 5 Things You Need to Know About Foot Cramps
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Twitching vs. Cramps and Spasms
"Muscle twitching is the non-medical term for fasciculations. They are usually visible, involve a small area of a muscle and don't cause pain or discomfort," says Ezequiel Piccione, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Neurological Sciences and medical director of the EMG Laboratory at University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
The Mayo Clinic explains that a muscle cramp, also known as muscle spasm, is a sudden contraction of a muscle, often in your calf, that can stop you in your tracks. A common term for this type of cramp is a "charley horse." This type of spasm can also wake you up at night.
"Cramps or spasms are usually painful and involve the sudden involuntary activation of larger parts of one or more muscles and can even move a joint," Dr. Piccione says. "They most commonly happen in the legs. During the cramp, you may feel a hard lump and you are unable to use the affected muscle."
What Causes Twitches and Spasms?
The Cleveland Clinic says that muscle spasms or cramps are commonly caused by:
- Not stretching before exercising.
- Muscle fatigue.
- Exercising in the heat.
- Mineral imbalances in the blood.
Cramps are also more common in pregnancy and older age, according to Dr. Piccione. And certain medications like diuretics or cholesterol-lowering agents can also cause them, but that is more rare.
"Most commonly, fasciculations or twitches are benign and due to stress, a stimulant like caffeine or muscle fatigue due to overuse. Not infrequently, people experience eyelid twitching after poor sleep. Muscle twitching in your arm muscles may be caused by doing too many push-ups," says Dr. Piccione.
In other words, your sleep or exercise routine can cause a twitch later.
When Twitches and Spasms Are Serious
Although most cramps and twitches are harmless, the Mayo Clinic warns that sometimes they are due to a medical condition. These include poor blood supply to muscles from narrowed arteries (atherosclerosis), or pressure on nerves as they leave your spine, a spinal condition like lumbar stenosis.
"There are potentially serious causes for cramps or fasciculations. These include sickness of nerves called peripheral neuropathy, muscle disorders called myopathy or more sinister diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease," Dr. Piccione says.
What Is Myoclonus?
Myoclonus is another medical term for an involuntary muscle movement. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), myoclonus is a sudden jerking of a muscle.
Myoclonus can be as simple as a twitch or hiccup; it can also be a sleep "jerk" or "start" that's normal when drifting off to sleep, NINDS points out. When myoclonus jerks are widespread and persistent, they may be a sign of a serious condition like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's disease, it says,
Treating Muscle Twitches and Spasms
"You should consult with a doctor if cramps are frequent, cause severe discomfort and are not associated with strenuous exercise or dehydration," Dr. Piccione says. "Presence of other symptoms like muscle weakness, swelling, loss of muscle bulk, numbness or tingling or difficulty walking are also red flags."
The Cleveland Clinic advises calling your doctor if muscle twitching is severe or frequent enough to interfere with your work, sleep or daily activities. Severe twitching may be a sign of a myoclonus-type disorder.
Although some types of severe twitching or spasms need medical attention and treatment, most spasms can be treated by:
- Stopping whatever is causing the spasm or cramp.
- Gently stretching.
- Massaging the muscle or stretching the muscle until spasms stop.
Applying a cold pack to a sore muscle or heat to a tight muscle can also help treat a spasm, the Cleveland Clinic advises.
The Mayo Clinic says you can help avoid spasms and cramps by drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration and stretching out your muscles before exercising.
- Cleveland Clinic: “Muscle Spasms”
- Ezequiel Piccione, MD, assistant professor, department of neurological sciences; medical director, EMG Laboratory, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha
- Mayo Clinic: “Muscle Cramp”
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: “Myoclonus Information Page”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Myoclonus (Muscle Twitch)”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.