Almost everyone will experience a painful leg spasm at some point. These leg spasms, sometimes called “Charley horses,” are a painful contraction that can last from a few seconds to several minutes. Residual pain can linger for days. Leg spasms most often occur during intense activity, such as running, or when a person is just dozing off or waking up. The muscles of the hands, arms, abdomen, or along the rib cage are all prone to spasms, but most muscle spasms occur in the foot, calf, or thigh muscles. Sometimes, especially after an injury of some sort, these painful leg spasms can become chronic.
Causes of leg spasms
No single cause has been identified for muscular leg spasm, but there are several potential causes, such as:
- Overexertion/muscle fatigue
- Insufficient stretching before activity
- Poor circulation
- Dehydration, which can cause magnesium, potassium, or sodium deficiency
- Calcium deficiency during pregnancy
- Nerve malfunction, possibly caused by a pinched nerve or injury
The occasional muscle spasm isn’t cause for great alarm. A multivitamin, increased fluid intake, and proper warm-ups before exercise can often prevent more spasms. Avoiding overexertion from too much exercise can also prevent spasms.
How to stop leg spasms
Although most leg spasms aren’t serious, some might call for medical intervention.
Sometimes, muscle spasms can have deeper causes that make them more difficult to treat. Injuries to the head or spinal cord can sometimes lead to frequent muscle spasms. Additionally, some medical conditions, such as cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis, can be accompanied by regular spasms. When muscle spasms occur frequently despite efforts to prevent them, or begin to interfere with daily life, it might be time to speak to a pain doctor.
A pain doctor may be able to recommend some dietary changes you can make to reduce leg spasm or exercises you can do to reduce their severity or frequency. Or, they may be able to suggest medications, like muscle relaxants or even Botulinum, to help you find relief.
Muscle relaxants for leg spasms
Because a muscle spasm in the leg is a painfully strong contraction of the muscle, it makes sense that a muscle relaxant might help by relaxing the muscle. However, the name muscle relaxant is somewhat misleading, because this group of drugs doesn’t act directly on muscles. Instead, most muscle relaxants act on the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord. Muscle relaxants can almost be thought of as entire-body relaxants. Indeed, the most common side effect of muscle relaxants is drowsiness or sedation.
According to some sources, stress might actually contribute to or worsen muscle spasms. If this is the case, the sedative-like qualities of muscle relaxants may also contribute to their effectiveness. As stated on the HealthLine website:
“The sedative effect that most muscle relaxants cause may also be important. Many experts think that much of the benefit of these drugs may come from the sedation they induce in people.”
However they work, muscle relaxants can provide relief from painful leg spasms.