Muscle Spasm seems to be a word tossed around frequently recently and more so it seems to be a frequent occurrence with many. What exactly is it?

Have you ever bent over to pick something from the floor and on coming up you cannot stand up straight. Or, you are unable to turn your neck when you wake up in the morning! You must have wondered ‘what is happening to me?’

A muscle spasm is a sudden and involuntary contraction, tightening or shaking of a muscle. Usually occurs as a result of trauma, strain, overuse, weakness or pain. It usually causes limitation of movement on the particular area where it has occurred.

Muscle spasms often occur in response to another condition, or as a result of pain, fatigue or overuse.

Common Causes:

  • Muscle strain or fatigue
  • Increased physical exertion
  • Stress, and having tense muscles
  • As a result of a fracture
  • Conditions that degenerate or put pressure on the inter-vertebral discs
  • Trauma such as a motor vehicle accident.

If you suffer a muscle spasm, the initial treatment consists of avoiding the positions and activities that produce the pain. Conservative treatment is usually recommended that includes rest and immobilization, ice and physiotherapy.

In mild cases rest and ice may be enough to reduce the pain. Physical therapy is however recommended to develop a series of postural, stretching and strengthening exercises to prevent re-occurrence of the injury. Return to activity should be gradual to prevent a return of symptoms.

Moderate to Severe
Should the symptoms persist, a thorough evaluation should be done to determine the possible cause of your symptoms, the structures involved, the severity of the condition, and the best course of treatment.

What Is A Muscle Pull?

Most times people use the word muscle pull when they are actually referring to a muscle cramp so allow me to state the difference:

  • Muscle cramp: A cramp will present as a knot or hard spot in the muscle. Cramps are usually caused by problems such as overworking a muscle, poor hydration, electrolyte imbalances, and insufficient blood flow to the muscle or nerve compression.
  • Sprain: A stretch or a partial tear of a ligament and corresponding joint. Therefore, a sprained muscle is not possible.
  • Lactic acid build-up:  Lactic acid is a byproduct of the fuels burned by the body for energy during exercise. If the lactic acid wastes are not properly flushed from the bloodstream, the athlete will experience a burning sensation in the muscle, not unlike that of an injury to the muscle.
  • Muscle pull (strain): A pulled muscle is actually a tear in the muscle tissue. This occurs when the muscle is strained to the point where the muscle is damaged. The more significant the strain, the more the muscle can be torn.

Causes of a muscle pull

  • Stretching the muscle beyond its ability to stretch
  • Muscle overuse or muscle fatigue.
  • Muscle trauma

Symptoms of a muscle pull

  • The affected muscle becomes sore(usually the first symptom)
  • The muscle becomes painful
  • It may be bruised
  • The muscle feels tender especially on touching
  • There may be swelling


  • Rest – When you strain a muscle, stop doing the activity that caused it to be strained. Pulled muscles are actually rips in muscle fibers, and further exertion could cause the tear to grow larger and lead to a serious injury.
    • Let the amount of pain you feel be your guide. If a pulled muscle occurs while you are running or playing a sport, and you have to stop and catch your breath due to the severe pain, the best thing to do is sit the rest of the game out.
    • Take a few days to recover from the pulled muscle before resuming the activity that caused it.
  • Icing- Icing the area reduces swelling and helps ease the pain. Fill a large storage bag with ice cubes. Wrap it in a thin towel, to protect your skin from getting damaged from direct ice. Hold the ice pack to your sore area for 20 minutes at a time several times a day until the swelling has gone down.

NB: Avoid using heat, which will not reduce inflammation/swelling caused by a pulled muscle. 

  • Compress the area. Wrapping the site of the pulled muscle can reduce inflammation and provide support to prevent further injury. Use an ace bandage to loosely wrap your arm or leg.

NB: Do not wrap the area too tightly, or you might inhibit circulation.

  • Elevate the muscle. Raising the inflamed area can help the swelling go down and provide it with the proper rest it needs to heal. If you pulled a muscle in your leg, rest it on a chair while sitting. If you pulled a muscle in your arm, you can elevate it using a sling. 

Within a few days a muscle pull should be able to feel better if it does not resolve means then you need attention from a physiotherapist who will be able to give you necessary treatment to alleviate your pain and get you back to function.
We, however advocate preventing an injury before it happens.

How to prevent an injury

  • Warm up. Pulled muscles happen when your muscles get overstrained, which can often occur as a result of exerting yourself before you have properly warmed up? Take the time to stretch and get your muscles warmed up before you participate in a physical activity.  If you enjoy running, take a light jog before doing sprints or fast running.
  •  Do strength training. Incorporating weightlifting and other strength training into your exercise routine can help prevent the chance that you will pull a muscle during an activity. Use free weights at home or work out in the weight room at the gym to build a solid, strong core and keep your muscles limber. 
  • Know when to stop. It is easy to get caught up in the moment when you are doing a physical activity and force yourself to keep going even when the pain in the leg or arm indicates you should stop. Remember that putting more strain on a pulled muscle will only make things worse. If you cause a deeper tear, you may have to sit out for an entire season instead of just one game.

Eunice Kabana
Physical Therapist
Chiropractic and Physiotherapy Health Centre

Muscle Spasm vs Muscle Pull

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