A muscle spasm — also known as a charley horse, muscle cramp or twitch — is a sudden, involuntary movement in one or more muscles. Common causes include stress, exercise, or dehydration, but nerve disorders and thyroid problems may increase the risk.
These movements can happen in any muscle of the body, but often affect the calf muscle. They are very common and mostly not a cause for concern.
Learn more about what causes muscle spasms, including how to treat and prevent them.
Muscle spasms are very common. They can happen in any part of the body, but they tend to affect the following:
- intercostal muscles, which are around the rib cage
Muscle pain, fatigue, and overuse are the most common causes of muscle spasms. Other causes include stress or anxiety, which can lead to muscle twitches in the face. Trapped nerves can result in spasms in the back.
Athletes who do not warm up before exercise or exercise in very hot conditions may also experience muscle spasms. Charley horse, for example, is a term people often use to describe spasms in runners’ calf muscles. Not drinking enough water before exercise can also cause muscle spasms.
Some people are more vulnerable than others to muscle spasms. Those who are most at risk are:
- older adults
- people with overweight or obesity
- pregnant people
People who have certain health conditions, such as nerve disorders or thyroid-related problems, also tend to experience a higher-than-average frequency of muscle spasms.
Muscle spasms are not usually anything to worry about, but in some cases, they can be a sign of an underlying neurological health condition. Neurological health conditions affect the brain or spinal cord, which is responsible for making the muscles move.
Not all muscle spasms are painful, but some can be. It can feel like the muscle is jumping or moving on its own, with this feeling typically lasting just a few seconds. Some people might even be able to see the muscle twitching.
Sometimes, it can feel as though the whole muscle has cramped up and cannot move. This effect most commonly happens in the legs and can be quite painful. The muscle may feel hard to the touch. The cramping sensation tends to pass within several minutes or so, but the muscle may continue to hurt for some time afterward.
If a muscle spasm is part of a neurological health condition, the person will usually experience other symptoms. These might include:
Muscle spasms usually resolve on their own. It might take a few seconds or several minutes to stop completely, but they do not often need treatment. Drinking water can help ease dehydration-related muscle cramps.
Someone with a painful cramp can try a few methods to help ease their symptoms. The American Osteopathic Association recommends:
- stopping any activity that led to the cramp — for example, running
- gently massaging or stretching the cramping muscle
- using a heating pad to relax tight muscles
- applying an ice pack to soothe sore muscles
If the pain is in the calf muscle, the person can try putting their weight on the affected leg and bending their knee slightly. Doing this will stretch the muscle.
If cramping affects the quadriceps — the muscles at the front of the thigh — the person can try holding the foot of the affected leg behind them and gently pulling it up toward their buttocks, keeping the knees together.
In cases where an underlying neurological condition is causing the muscle spasms, doctors may recommend an antispasmodic medication.
Drinking plenty of water and stretching the muscles before any exercise or repetitive movements can help prevent muscle spasms.
Some people experience muscle cramps in the legs during the night. Stretching the limbs before bed can help prevent this from occurring.
Learn more about preventing muscle cramps in the leg.
Muscle spasms, twitches, and cramps are not usually a cause for concern. People who exercise regularly or athletes tend to experience them more often.
Anyone who regularly experiences severe or painful muscle spasms should speak to a doctor.
Muscle spasms are very common, and people do not usually need to worry about them. Overexercising, dehydration, and stress are the most common causes.
The spasms happen when the muscle suddenly moves involuntarily. Muscle spasms may feel like a slight twitch or a painful cramp, and they can occur in the muscles in any part of the body.
Muscle spasms can last just a few seconds or up to several minutes, but they tend to go away on their own or without any treatment. Gently stretching or massaging the affected area or using a heat or ice pack may help.
Sometimes, muscle spasms can be a sign of an underlying health condition. Anyone with frequent or severe muscle spasms should speak to a doctor.