We often hear from patients when they’ve visited a doctor about their pain, that it’s often described as a muscle spasm. This diagnosis can often leave patients very confused as to why a muscle spasm is occurring and what’s actually going on in their spine to cause this. The fact that the muscle is just going into spasm is not really an appropriate diagnosis – as there was probably a time when they didn’t go into spasm – so what exactly is the cause? Today we’re exploring what the causes of muscle spasms are, to give you an idea as to what could actually be causing the discomfort.
Muscles are very reactive structures. You can injure the muscle itself, tear it perhaps through a specific trauma often as a result of sports injuries. A footballer tearing their hamstring and it going into spasm during a match wouldn’t be out of place. But the patients we see here at the clinic experiencing muscle spasms are not all football players, and instead that muscle spasm is being caused by something very simple such as putting your socks on in the morning.
What Can Cause Muscle Spasms?
So what exactly is happening in the body to cause a back muscle spasm? Let’s focus on an example of your lower back, but there are substantial similarities between your lower back and neck. Your muscles form a protecting barrier against the lower back region of your spine – and depending on which area of your spine is injured will affect a different group of muscles. If we take one of the most common areas of the spine to become injured, the L5-S1 – right at the bottom of your lower back – it’s very common that you can experience disc degeneration in this area that’s causing their back pain. Other common problems include facet joint irritation, slipped, bulging or herniated discs. More serious complications can also occur, such as spondylolisthesis where a traumatic fracture causes one of the vertebras to slip forwards out of the normal alignment. A spinal stenosis can also occur as a result of many of these aforementioned conditions, where the spinal canal actually narrows due to compression onto the cord. From any of these conditions, you’re going to fundamentally have some damage, an injury or trauma to the soft tissues around your spine, or the hard tissues in some cases. While your muscles protect your spine, if an injury occurs they will guard the injury in attempt to prevent any further damage. This guarding mechanism is essentially a muscle spasm. So if you’re regularly experiencing them then there’s a good chance you have injured part of your spine and your body is simply protecting it.
Why Does A Muscle Spasm?
The problem lies in that most of these spinal injuries, unless caused by a one-off trauma to the spine due to an accident, often occur over a period of time due to an inability for your lumbar spine to deal with the compressive loading of gravity. In simple terms, problems such as poor posture cause compression to be placed onto areas of the spine that aren’t designed to carry the load. Instead of the weight of gravity being effectively distributed throughout your body, it gets distributed ineffectively and over a long period of time (weeks, months, or in some cases years) this gradually causes these injuries to occur. The spine degenerates quicker in the case of degenerative disc disease, discs compress and bulge etc. As your spine fails to deal with the compressive load, it changes its structure to adapt, and this can immediately tighten everything up. If you have a desk job and have a particularly long day at the office, you may notice if you’re not taking care of your posture that your muscles tighten up around the neck, shoulders and upper back. That’s okay for a day or two, but if it starts to persist for periods of weeks, months or years, then it’s going to make that compression injury worse in the long run and be a substantial barrier to recovery.
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