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Symptom Story: Muscle Spasms

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Jennifer L. Kurz, MD

Many patients complain of muscle pain, tightness, or spasms. But what exactly are muscle spasms, how do they develop, and how can we treat them? Commonly, muscle spasms are normal responses to muscle overexertion, pain, or fatigue. However, in some circumstances, they imply serious systemic or neurological disease. It is important to understand the timing, frequency, duration, pattern, and overall setting in which muscles spasms occur. The following definitions are important to understand:

A muscle spasm is a sudden, involuntary contraction of one or more muscles. A spasm results from an abnormally sustained muscle contraction and is often painful. Various muscles may develop spasms, including the small intrinsic hand muscles of a musician to the larger “charley horse” calf muscles of a runner. Muscle spasms may involve the skeletal muscles of the limbs and spine, responsible for locomotion and upright posture, or the smooth muscles lining the hollow, tubular internal organs of our body, such as the muscles lining the colon or bladder. Skeletal and smooth muscles have different embryological origins, functions, innervations, and physiologies. For the purposes of this discussion, the focus will be on skeletal muscle spasms.

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