Friday, January 20, 2012

Breaking muscle spasms - more than a basic stretch

This week, I've seen a couple instances of some pretty intense muscle spasms. Spasms can range from being momentary irritations to being days-long, debilitatingly painful conditions, which can lead to additional complications (including muscle strains) if not released. Spasms can have a variety of causes, including a host of things that put the offending muscle into poor holding or movement patterns (here's a nice little article with more on causes of spasms).  With spasms, there is a neurological component.  The muscle is deciding to fire (contract) without instruction from the brain.  Then, when the brain tells the muscle to fire, it might only manage to contract even harder, causing more pain.  Fun, right?  So the key is to break this firing loop and get the muscle to properly follow the brain's instructions.

For most of us, instinct tells us to stretch the offending muscle when it starts to go into one of those more minor spasms. And after hanging out in that stretch for a little bit, our spasm subsides and we can go back to life. But what if the muscle just doesn't want to comply and stop spasming?

This is where I help you take your stretching to the next level by intentionally manipulating the neurology that's misbehaving.  Basic stretching does a decent job of getting the muscle and its neurons to relax some.  But a muscle in a more severe spasm isn't so likely to relax all that well, so we need to send it neurological instructions to relax, while we also give it the physical cue of stretching, and here's how to do that (quick video at the end, with a basic demo):

Somewhere in the middle of your range of motion, contract the muscle that's opposite the one that's having the spasm, but do so against some sort of resistance so you can really engage that muscle with some (but not all) of your force.  Hold that for a couple moments, then quickly (but gently) move the offending muscle into a stretch.  You should find that this helps release some more severe spasms.

This works because during the opposite muscle's contraction, the offender is being sent signals to relax and lengthen.  Then, the brain stops sending that signal and you move into the stretch before the offending muscle realizes that its "relaxation" period is over.  So now you are using the stretch to prompt a release in the offender, too.  Often times this well help to release a more intense spasm and can be a powerful element in releasing spasms that are even more severe, still.

If you still find that your spasms are even more severe, the application of ice or heat, as well as assisted stretching, and massage might also be able to help break that pain-spasm-pain cycle.

And if you're not having a spasm, this is also a great way to achieve big jumps in flexibility, if you are working on that with a particular muscle or muscle group.

In this brief video demo, I address contracting the spasming muscle, which is likely to be too painful to actually do, but it is a viable option if it feels OK.  I also wanted to include it in case you decide to use this practice as a part of trying to increase flexibility.