Both muscle spasms and muscle cramps occur when a voluntary muscle goes into a contraction on its own.
The difference between a spasm and a cramp is the intensity of that contraction.
What is a Voluntary Muscle?
A voluntary muscle is one that you use to consciously control movements. As you move, these muscles will contract and become tighter. Then, when the movement is over, they will relax.
However, in the cases of spasms and cramps, a muscle or a few fibers of a muscle will contract on their own.
Muscle Spasm versus Muscle Cramp
The major difference between a muscle cramp and a muscle spasm is the force of the contraction.
In the case of a muscle spasm, the muscle will quickly contract and then release without causing any pain. On the other hand, when the muscle contraction is prolonged and painful, it is referred to as a muscle cramp.
Causes of Muscle Spasms and Muscle Cramps
It’s not clear what exactly causes muscle cramps, but it is clear that if you don’t stretch enough, or if the muscle is tired or not getting enough oxygen, a cramp can occur.
Some other factors that can contribute to muscle cramps are dehydration, heat, not getting enough salt and minerals- and even some medications.
Check with your physician regarding the side effects of the medications you’re taking to find out if that could be the case.
A spasm occurs when a voluntary muscle involuntarily contracts. Often, a muscle spasm will occur with no stimulation.
If a spasm occurs due to some sort of stimulation, it is typically trivial. Spasms typically last for several minutes and will result in pain before they slowly ease up.
Any muscle in the body can be affected by a spasm, but most commonly, it is the muscles in the calves, hands, and feet that are affected.
Spasms can be the result of many factors including dehydration, metabolic disorders, prolonged periods of exercise, and even muscular or neurological disorders.
While it is true that muscle spasms are commonly a symptom of various conditions or diseases, they do not always indicate that there is a problem.
Dehydration Causes Muscle Spasms
Dehydration refers to a loss of fluids as well as electrolytes- and can be a cause of muscle spasms. Electrolytes include calcium, potassium, magnesium, and sodium.
When this loss of electrolytes and fluid occur, the ion balance in your muscles and nerves is disrupted, which keeps the muscles from recovering and responding normally- therefore causing a spasm.
Metabolic Disorders Cause Muscle Spasms
There are certain metabolic disorders that can cause deficiencies in muscle enzymes, which leads to muscle spasms.
When you have a deficiency in muscle enzymes, the energy supply within that muscle is affected, which means that the muscle doesn’t work properly- and can cause the muscle to go into spasms.
Prolonged Periods of Exercise can Cause Muscle Spasms
When you exercise for a long period of time, you run the risk of causing your muscles to spasms.
When exercising, you need to make sure to take plenty breaks, so that you do not deplete your energy.
When a significant depletion of energy occurs, your muscles are unable to relax, which will result in a spasm.
Muscular and Neurological Diseases can Cause Muscle Spasms
There are certain muscular and even neurological disorders that can cause you to experience muscle spasms.
Muscular diseases typically result in damage to the muscle, which is the cause of the spasms.
Neurological disorders typically involve nerve damage, which leads to muscle spasms.
Some of the common muscular and neurological disorders that result in muscle spasms include multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia.
Other Causes of Muscle Spasms
There are lots of other things that can cause or contribute to muscle spasms. Specific medications, abuse of drugs or alcohol, kidney failure, pregnancy, hypothyroidism and even muscle fatigue can result in muscle spasms.
Some other factors include nerve damage, cold temperatures, neurodegenerative disease and overall fatigue can result in muscle spasms.
In some cases, you may even experience very brief, very mild muscle spasms from time to time without there being any underlying cause present.
Causes of Muscle Cramps
Cramps, on the other hand, tend to be a bit more painful and result from muscle strain, dehydration, overuse of a particular muscle, or even staying in one position for a long period of time can cause you to have a muscle cramp.
However, most of the time, the exact cause of a muscle cramp isn’t always obvious.
Though most of the time, a muscle cramp is harmless, sometimes it could be related to an underlying medical condition such as an inadequate blood supply to the area, mineral depletion, or nerve compression.
Inadequate Blood Supply Causes Muscle Cramps
When you have arteriosclerosis of the extremities, or a narrowing of the arteries that bring blood to your extremities, such as your legs, you may experience cramps in your legs and/or feet during exercise. Typically, these types of cramps will go away very soon after you stop exercising.
Mineral Depletion Causes Muscle Cramps
When you have too little potassium, magnesium, or calcium in your diet, you can end up experiencing painful leg cramps.
Additionally, if you are taking a diuretic, such as to control your high blood pressure, you will most likely experience mineral depletion and therefore, muscle cramps.
Nerve Compression Causes Muscle Cramps
When your nerves are compressed in your spine- such as in the case of lumbar stenosis- you may also notice that you have cramps in your legs.
Typically, the longer you walk or are on your feet, the worse the pain will be.
Try to walk in a slightly flexed position, just as if you were pushing a shopping cart, this may help to delay the onset of symptoms or improve them somewhat.
Elimination of Muscle Spasms and Cramps
There are a few things that you can do to eliminate muscle spasms and cramps. Following are some steps for when you feel one coming on.
When you feel a spasm or cramp coming on, immediately stop what you’re doing and very gently massage the area- if possible, apply heat.
As the cramp starts to ease up, you can very slowly stretch out the affected limb. Keep massaging the area as you stretch to increase blood flow to the surrounding areas. Once the pain has eased up, apply ice to the area.
In order to give the affected muscle the time that it needs to heal properly, make sure to lower the intensity of your workouts.
Always make sure to consume plenty of fluids, especially when you’re exercising. Of course, water is always the best option, however, you can substitute exercise beverages occasionally- especially if you plan to be working out for longer than one hour.
Try adding more potassium and magnesium to your diet- eat more bananas and oranges for a natural boost, or you can use supplements.