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 Botox, 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.

Types of muscle relaxants for leg spasm

There are two types of muscle relaxants that can relieve leg pain from spasms.

The first type of muscle relaxant is classified as an antispastic. These medications decrease spasticity, that is, increased muscular tone and exaggerated tendon reflexes. Chronic spasticity is often an effect of neurological disorders, such as multiple sclerosis or a spinal cord injury. As a result, antispastic muscle relaxants are generally prescribed for individuals whose muscle spasms are neurologically caused. Baclofen and dantrolene are both antispastic medications. Some research suggests that antispastic muscle relaxants’ effectiveness may be limited as compared to antispasmodic muscle relaxants.

Antispasmodic muscle relaxants, on the other hand, work by reducing the number of spasms experienced, which in turn reduces the pain caused by spasms. Although it’s not clear exactly how antispasmodic muscle relaxants work, they have been proven successful at treating chronic pain from frequent muscle spasms. Antispasmodic muscle relaxants are best for spasms caused by musculoskeletal issues. Non-benzodiazepines and benzodiazepines are both classified as antispasmodic muscle relaxants.

Side effects of muscle relaxants

The most common side effect of both antispastic and antispasmodic muscle relaxants is drowsiness.

Because of this, physicians might not prescribe muscle relaxants to people with jobs that require the use of potentially dangerous equipment, like pilots or construction workers. If you’re taking a muscle relaxant for the first time, do so at home. This way you can see if the muscle relaxant will cause a serious sedative effect.

In some cases, individuals with a leg pain condition that could benefit from traditional oral pain medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), might have another condition that makes the use of NSAIDs impossible or unwise. For example, NSAIDs can cause bleeding or damage to the liver in some cases. Someone with liver disease or a history of ulcers should avoid NSAIDs. For these individuals, muscle relaxants can provide a viable alternative.

Botox injections for leg spasms

Another surprising treatment option for muscle spasms is Botox injections.

Clostridium botulinum bacteria produce enzymes called botulinum neurotoxins. The word Botox is a shortened version of this enzyme: Bo from botulinum and tox from neurotoxins. Botox enzymes attach to nerve endings, preventing the release of chemical transmitters that tell a muscle to move. This causes temporary paralysis of the injected muscle, which prevents muscle spasms. Temporary paralysis may disrupt neurotransmitters that send pain messages. Therefore, not only can Botox prevent further painful muscle spasms, it can also potentially relieve pain from previous leg spasms.

It usually takes two to four weeks for a Botox injection to take full effect. Research on the use of Botox to treat painful leg spasms is somewhat limited. However, findings have indicated that it can, indeed, relieve pain. Botox’s effects aren’t permanent. You can get injections every three months. Because it treats the symptoms rather than the cause of pain, many physicians also recommend some form of physical therapy along with Botox injections.

Another related option is trigger point injections for musculature pain.

Do you suffer from frequent and painful leg spasms that could benefit from muscle relaxants? To find a pain doctor in your area who can help diagnose your condition and provide treatment options, click the button below. 

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