What’s really causing your muscle spasm?


What's really causing your Muscle Spasm? The Most Common Reason Explained

Acute muscle spasms are a common symptom reported by patients, often associated with the lower back or neck. These episodes can be annoying and restrictive, all the way through to being intensely painful. Oftentimes it will resolve on its own simply by waiting for the symptoms to go away. The popular opinion is usually that this is “just a muscle spasm” which will go away on it’s own and there is nothing further to do. This advice can however be misguided and in some cases dangerous when there is an underlying cause that remains undiagnosed.

Rarely should we ever consider a muscle spasm as “just a muscle spasm”.

The common treatments

Muscle relaxants
Kinesio tape
Foam rolling
Spinal Manipulation

These interventions may provide temporary relief and allow for some freedom of movement, but the body will often tighten up again and the same muscle spasm will return. In most cases this is because the muscle spasm is a merely symptom of a more significant underlying problem, rather than the actual problem itself. We need to pause and ask the question, why has this happened?

What’s really going on?

The muscle spasm is a warning sign. When this occurs, it means the body is aware of an underlying injury and the spasm is a way of limiting movement and preventing you from loading the injured tissue and causing further damage. The muscles hold sustained contractions to tighten the injured region and stop you moving normally. When a chosen treatment only addresses the spasm itself, it is essentially fighting the natural response of the body and does not resolve the underlying problem.

The most common cause

When you’re dealing with muscle spasm, particularly in the lower back or neck, the most common cause is an underlying disc injury in the spine. When a disc is irritated and inflamed, the associated muscle spasm is the body’s in-built protective mechanism to stop you moving a certain way and prevent further damage to the disc. Well-intentioned practitioners and self-motivated patients can unknowingly perpetuate the discomfort of the problem with treatment that focuses on restoring as much movement as possible.

What can you do?

It’s important to firstly recognise when the muscle spasm is not just a muscle spasm. An experienced practitioner will ask the right questions and do the right testing to ascertain if it’s likely that there is an underlying injury. In most cases, we should implement some simple strategies to decrease load on the injury, thereby also decreasing inflammation and slowly improving normal movement. Once movement is improved, we can conduct a more thorough clinical examination and provide a more detailed diagnosis. The muscle spasm is a symptom that needs to be explained as to why it happened and to understand if there is an opportunity now, to avoid more pain later.

Final thoughts

In most cases, a diagnosis of “muscle spasm” is not only incomplete, but may also be dangerous to the patient who remains unaware of what is really going on with their body. If that patient continues to go about their activity in the same way without a thorough understanding of their problem, there is an increased risk of a more serious injury in the future.

Muscle spasm due to an underlying disc injury is akin to the warning light of a car turning on – it is an opportunity to stop and address the problem, rather than cover over the signal and hope that it goes away.

Dr. Christopher Aysom, Principal Clinician
BChiroSc, MChiro (Chiropractor)

Apex Soft Tissue & Spine
Pymble, NSW, Australia

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