Spasms and Cramps
Updated: Jan 29
Spasms are scary and cramp is painful but I wanted to write this article to de-mystify both, as many of my clients come to me BECAUSE they have had spasms and frequently my aim is to GIVE my clients cramp during our sessions (yes, I am sadistic).
Neither are really anything to be frightened of, they are something to be listened to. At the end I've also given you a video with 5 exercises to try if you've had a back spasm.
A spasm is a protection mechanism of the body. It may seem like a fairly violent and terrifying way to be protecting you but I can assure you, that is what it thinks it is doing! So, what is it protecting you from?
A fully functional (mobile, supple and strong) body is able to move comfortably in all manner of ways. Very few things are off limits to a fully functional body.
A fully functional body is also able to deal with trauma or awkward movements MUCH better than a dysfunctional one. eg. Rolling on your ankle shouldn't be enough to cause much damage to a fully functional ankle. When the same thing happens to an ankle that is stiff (from a lifetime of wearing suffocating and stiffening corsets - shoes) with a very underdeveloped musculature of the lower leg, ankle and foot (from wearing suffocating and stiffening corsets - shoes), that stiff, weak ankle will likely suffer an injury as it has no give or strength in an awkward movement.
A back spasm follows the same sort of principle to this. It is not the movement that 'caused' the back spasm that is the problem, it is the body we are taking to the movement that is the problem. We need to teach the body to be able to handle the movement.
I say this because lots of people start avoiding certain movements, rather than trying to teach their body how to do it. It's not the movement that's the problem, it's the body that is the problem.
A common cause of back spasms involve a pelvis locked into an anterior pelvic tilt. If you look at this picture below, this means that the lumbar (lower) spine is constantly locked in a state of extension (flexion would be if the lumbar spine curved backwards like someone with a posterior pelvic tilt).
When your body has 'x' amount of years that it is locked in this position, it becomes the 'normal' position of your pelvis to your body's information centre (although normal doesn't mean healthy/functional).
Your body will start to have problems when you ask a demand of it that isn't a 'normal' demand for it (even though it would be perfectly normal for a functional body). So, a body locked in an anterior pelvic tilt/lumbar extension is going to panic when asked to move quickly into lumbar flexion.
What's an example of lumbar flexion? See the video below - bending over to touch your toes! When you bend over, you are asking your lumbar spine to curve backwards into flexion. If you do this quickly and your body isn't used to it, it might react violently to protect you.
(I also like this video as this middle aged man proves that by moving your body frequently in a certain way means you can unlock new function, even if you've never been able to do the movement before. Again, it is NOT about age people!)
A body locked in an anterior pelvic tilt doesn't understand this movement and panics, because it's not a 'normal' demand for this body. It fights to protect the area from the strange demand of which it is being asked, by freezing into spasm. The spasm stops the body moving any further in this alien way and short circuits your desire to do that movement and this will pull you out of it. You may have gone a little too far, too quick and the spasm may have ramifications for a few weeks afterwards. You may then get scared to do that movement again, so you don't. By doing this, you pander to your dysfunctional pelvic tilt and will make the reaction even worse the next time you need to go into lumbar flexion eg. to quickly duck down to stop something from falling off a table.
Whilst the pain from a spasm can be really intense, it doesn't mean anything sinister is wrong with you, it simply means your muscles are too frozen in a position and they want to protect what they know.
There are different types of cramp. Some people get aggressive cramp at random times due to lack of sodium or dehydration. Some people get cramp after they have done a very long run which is due to a build of lactic acid.
When I talk about cramp, I am talking about the cramp you get when you ask a lazy muscle to wake up. This is 'good cramp' and happens all the time in my appointments.
One of my favourite phrases is "Chase the cramp!" If a movement causes you cramp (but not 'normal pain') this is a move you need to do more and more of!
The Egoscue Method/Postural Alignment Therapy is all about asking a demand of muscles that are not functioning correctly and which are therefore pulling joints and bones out of place. By looking at the position of these joints and bones on my clients, I can surmise which muscles are not working in the correct length/tension relationships in order to hold everything in functional alignment. It is these muscles we start trying to get working properly which will then bring the joints and bones back into place, and reduce the pain caused by uneven wear and tear in the joints.
When a muscle hasn't been worked for a while, it is very common for it to promptly cramp up almost immediately upon asking the demand of the muscle. I'm not quite sure why this is (please send me answers on a postcard!) but my guess is that it is possibly something to do with circulation/oxygen stores in the muscle.
Our body is very adept at switching off dormant systems in our body to conserve energy; it is a survival mechanism from those prehistoric times (pre-supermarkets) when calories and energy were hard to come by! So, if we aren't frequently using a muscle, our body will send it to sleep to conserve resources.
If we suddenly ask this muscle to switch on and it's not prepared/there's little oxygen already being fed there and so cramp is a normal reaction.
Our body is amazing at quickly adapting to the load and the demand we are putting on it, so if you get a sudden cramp from asking a specific movement of your body (rather than cramp from a sustained period of exercise) it is likely you can quickly stretch it out, oxygen will flow and the cramp will subside. Once you regularly keep pushing through it, you won't get cramp anymore in that movement as your muscles will have woken up and your body will be used to it.
This is a major sign of progress so "Chase the cramp!"