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Chances are we’ve all experienced the painful effects of a muscle cramp. Some can be mild and annoying and others can stop us dead in our tracks. Whether we’re out for a jog in the morning, sitting at our desks at work, or sound asleep in the middle of the night, muscle cramps can strike suddenly and without warning. So what exactly causes a muscle cramp? What are some of the risk factors that predispose us to cramps? And what can be done to break a cramp when it occurs?

A cramp is an involuntary and sustained muscle contraction that can last anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. Commonly referred to as a “Charley Horse,” these sudden and painful spasms cause a noticeable hardening and bulging of the affected muscle(s), and can at times leave some residual soreness once they’ve passed. It’s not uncommon for a cramp to strike multiple times before it’s completely resolved. Let’s take a look at the different types of cramps and what’s behind them.

Types and Causes

Muscle cramps can occur anywhere in the body. True cramps, as differentiated from tetany, dystonic cramps, or even smooth muscle cramps (i.e. menstrual cramps), are cramps that affect voluntary skeletal muscles. Some commonly affected areas include the hands, ribcage, abdomen, thighs, calves, and foot muscles.

Cramping that occurs during or after exercise or physical activity is considered a fairly normal occurrence. Muscle fatigue and over-exertion, such as in writer’s cramp or long distance running, are the likely culprits in cases such as these. But more often than not, the exact cause may be hard to identify since there are so many contributing factors. Here are some other leading causes:

  • Chronic muscle tension
  • Poor circulation
  • Dehydration
  • Overuse
  • Injury
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Drug side effects
  • An overly facilitated nervous system
  • Myofascial trigger points
  • Restless Leg Syndrome
  • Insufficient stretching before or after exercise
  • Increased levels of lactic acids and metabolites
  • Medical conditions such as: diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, thyroid disorders, kidney disease, MS

A muscle spasm can develop in any of the voluntary muscle groups as a protective mechanism against further injury.

Repetitive use of certain muscles can lead to muscle fatigue, which in turn can cause cramping.

Resting cramps, such as those that occur while we’re sitting or lying down in awkward positions, are more likely to occur as we age.

Dehydration, either from a lack of proper hydration or excessive perspiration, can increase the chances of cramping due to sodium depletion; so can diuretics, which are medications that promote urination.

Severe vitamin deficiencies have also been associated with muscle cramping. B1, B5, B6, magnesium, potassium, and calcium are all important for proper muscle functioning.

Leg Cramps

Leg cramps, such those that affect the front and back of the thigh, as well as the calf and foot muscles, are usually at the top of the list of afflicted areas. Cramps that occur while walking or running can be the result of poor circulation caused by muscle tension in the lower leg. The gastroc/soleus complex, the two prominent muscles of the lower leg, is an integral part of the venous return to the heart. The soleus muscle in particular has the unique distinction of being called the “body’s second heart.” The reason for this is that the soleus contracts both while shortening and lengthening, making it very efficient at pumping blood back to the heart. If the muscle is chronically tight and shortened due to trigger points or poor conditioning, it can impede blood flow and therefore be an indirect cause of calf cramps.

Muscle tension on the top of the foot, whether due to tight footwear or trigger points in the interosseus muscles, can cause numbness, swelling and cramps on the top of the foot. The poor circulation resulting from this is likely to promote trigger points in the area.

Nocturnal leg cramps can also be the result of trigger points in the lower leg muscles. Vitamin deficiencies, such as magnesium and potassium, can be a significant factor in such cases. Calf cramps that occur in the later stages of pregnancy may be considered normal to some, but can often be the result of a calcium deficiency.

Poor circulation can lead to decreased levels of oxygen to the muscles. In some cases a condition known as claudication, which causes pain and/or cramping in the lower leg or thigh, is a result of inadequate blood flow to the leg. The pain is typically felt while walking or running, when oxygen is needed the most. It subsides while at rest and is sometimes referred to as “intermittent claudication” for that reason. Claudication can be a symptom of a more serious condition known as peripheral artery disease (PAD). Atherosclerosis, which is hardening of the arteries due to high cholesterol and an accumulation of plaque in the arteries, often begins in the arteries furthest from the heart. The pain associated with claudication however does not necessarily come from a muscle cramp, but from an accumulation of lactic acid and other chemical byproducts held in the tissue.

Cramp Relief

There are a few things that can be done when we’re in the throes of a cramp. Most of us will gently massage and/or stretch the affected muscle until the cramp subsides. This is an instinctual reaction to an acute attack of pain. And for most of us, is all that it takes. Here are some alternate ways of breaking a cramp.

Sustained compression: Hold the cramped muscle with steady pressure until it subsides. This is an especially good technique when dealing with multiple cramps.

Ice/Heat Application: The numbness caused by icing a cramped muscle will inhibit nerve impulses and help to break the cramp. Although it may take longer, it will aid in reducing post cramp soreness and may be a good option when a muscle cramps multiple times. Heat is also a great way of soothing and relaxing cramped muscles. A twenty-minute soak in a warm bath with Epsom salt or applying moist heat compresses should suffice.

Reciprocal Inhibition: Muscles work in opposition to each other. In order for one muscle group to contract, the opposing muscle group must relax. For example, in order for the calf muscles to flex, the shin muscles must relax and give to a certain degreee. This neuromuscular technique uses the inhibition naturally created in the opposing muscle group to stop the cramp. If the cramp occurs in the calf muscles, place the opposite (non-cramping) foot on top of the cramping foot to provide resistance, and try to lift your toes against the resistance. Flexing the shin muscles of the cramping leg against resistance will create reciprocal inhibition in the calf muscles. Although this technique is a bit more involved and requires some forethought, the relief it provides is often immediate and well worth the practice.

Muscle Spindle Approximation: This other neuromuscular technique uses a set of proprioceptive cells found in the belly of a muscle to provide relief. This technique is ideally suited for large, graspable muscles such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, and abdominals. Grasp either end of the cramping muscle and squeeze the ends together. If the quadriceps are cramping, grasp just above the knee with one hand and just below the pelvis with the other hand and bring the ends together.

Stretching: Although stretching is one of the most common ways of breaking a cramp, caution should be used as stretching during a severe cramp can make it worse. For lower leg/calf cramps, gently point the toes up and down until the cramp subsides. Stretching before and after exercise is an excellent way of reducing your chances of getting a cramp. For those who suffer from nighttime cramps, some gentle stretches before going to bed should be part of your routine.


joe-azevedo2Joe Azevedo is a New York State/NCBTMB Licensed Massage Therapist, ARCB Certified Reflexologist, and an Advanced Reiki Practitioner. He is a graduate of the Swedish Institute and is the owner and founder of Brooklyn Reflexology.

Sciatica is commonly referred to as pain that affects the low back, hips, buttocks, and backs of the legs due to compression and irritation of the sciatic nerve. An injury or impingement of the sciatic nerve can lead to a neuritis (inflammation of the nerve), neuralgia (pain along the course of the nerve), or a radiculopathy (nerve root involvement). Although sciatica can sometimes be the result of a herniated disc, there are other causes and contributing factors that can cause or mimic symptoms of sciatica. Such factors may include postural deviations, piriformis entrapment, and trigger points in the gluteal muscles, all of which are fairly common causes of sciatic pain.

The sciatic nerve is considered the largest nerve in the human body. Segments of the nerve are formed between L4 & S3 in the sacral plexus. The nerve, which is actually comprised of two divisions — the peroneal and tibial, travels through the greater sciatic foramen of the pelvis, under the piriformis muscle, and down the back of the leg to the foot. The peroneal branch and the tibial branch travel down the back of the thigh together until they reach the back of the knee. At this point, the peroneal branch splits from the tibial branch and travels down the back of the lower leg, around the inner ankle to the bottom of the foot. The tibial branch, once at the back of the knee, will wrap around the fibula bone and bifurcate once again into two other branches – the deep peroneal nerve (DPN) and the superficial peroneal nerve (SPN). The DPN travels down the front of the lower leg between the shin muscles and the tibia to the top of the foot. The SPN will travel down the lateral or outside part of the lower leg.

Piriformis

With the exception of the front and inner parts of the thigh, the sciatic nerve innervates all the other muscles of the leg. This includes the hamstrings and all the lower leg and foot muscles. The femoral nerve operates the hip flexors, namely the quadriceps, and the obturator nerve controls the adductor muscles. Due to the sciatic nerve’s origin and wide distribution, it can cause pain and discomfort in the low back, sacro-iliac joint, buttock, hip, back of the leg, and foot.

Signs & Symptoms:

  • Symptoms may be insidious or have a sudden onset
  • Unilateral in presentation
  • Radiating pain that can extend from the low back and buttock area, down the back of the leg, and into the foot
  • Paresthesias (i.e. burning, pins and needles, numbness), weakness, and muscle spasms anywhere along the course of the nerve
  • Pain can be a constant, dull ache or a shooting pain down the back of the leg
  • Pain may increase while sitting and diminish while standing or lying down
  • Coughing or laughing may exacerbate the pain
  • Standing in antalgic position: Depending on the site of the irritation, a person suffering from sciatic pain may hunch over and to the side to help alleviate pressure on the nerve

Causes:

  • A disk lesion, such as a protrusion or herniation at L4-L5 or L5-S1. The disk pushes into the nerve root and sacral plexus causing a radiculopathy
  • Stenosis: a narrowing of the vertebral canal in which the nerve passes through
  • Postural deviations: An anterior pelvic tilt, such as one that occurs during pregnancy, can decrease the space in the sciatic notch through which the nerve passes through. A posterior pelvic tilt can shorten the muscles the sciatic nerve must travel under
  • Piriformis syndrome: When this hip muscle shortens and begins to spasm, it can put direct pressure over the nerve
  • Sitting for extended periods of time with an object in your rear pocket, such as a wallet, can put direct pressure on the nerve. This is known as “back pocket sciatica”
  • Trigger points in one of the gluteal muscles can mimic sciatic pain
  • Joint dysfunction of the lumbo-sacral area
  • Inflammation of the nerve due to an infection or tumor

Another predisposing factor in the development of sciatica is the course the nerve takes once it exits out of the greater sciatic foramen in the pelvis. This congenital variance may explain why some people are more susceptible to developing sciatica than others.

In a majority of the population, the two branches of the sciatic nerve will exit out of the pelvis, through the greater sciatic foramen, and under the piriformis. This is true in about 85% of people. In approximately 10% of the population, one branch of the nerve passes through the piriformis, and the other underneath. In yet another small percentage, approximately 3%, one branch passes over the piriformis, and the other underneath. And finally, in less than 1% of people, both branches pass through the piriformis.

If the sciatica is a result of piriformis involvement or trigger points in the gluteal muscles, the pain may be more conscribed and only reach as far down as the knee. In a vertebral impingement the pain may be more widespread, radiating into the back and all the way down to the foot in severe cases.

Glute Medius TP

Diagnosis:

A history of unilateral low back pain that extends down the back of the leg is usually the defining symptom. A CT scan or MRI may show a disc herniation in the lumbar spine if one is present. The straight leg raise test, also known as Lasegue’s Sign, can be performed to determine the origin of the pain. On occasion, the pain may be due to a glute or hamstring strain. Other times, the pain may be due to some pathology of the lumbar spine or sacroiliac joint. While lying flat on your back, one leg is passively raised until the pain is elicited. Sciatic pain usually presents itself between 35 – 70 degrees of hip flexion.

Treatments:

If the sciatica is a result of a disk herniation, infection, or tumor, you should consult a doctor as to the appropriate form of treatment.

Mild cases of sciatica will often resolve themselves over time. Ice and heat applications are a great way of addressing the inflammation and muscle spasms associated with sciatica.

Anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants may be prescribed by your doctor to help manage the pain. And if the pain is particularly acute, steroid injections may provide relief for a period of time.

Women who develop sciatica during pregnancy as a result of an excessive anterior pelvic tilt, will find that their symptoms abate once they deliver and the pelvis returns to normal.

Those suffering from sciatica resulting from obesity or faulty postures, will find that losing the extra weight and strengthening key muscle groups in the low back and abdominals will help correct pelvic imbalances.

Sciatica caused from prolonged periods of sitting and/or back pocket sciatica is easily addressed and typically of short duration.

Those with piriformis syndrome and/or trigger points in the glute muscles can greatly benefit from direct massage to the muscles of the low back and hips. Trigger points in the piriformis can shorten and irritate this key muscle. These changes can cause the piriformis to place direct pressure over the sciatica nerve, which runs underneath it. Trigger points found in other gluteal muscles can often mimic sciatic pain. And although these muscles may not be directly over the sciatic nerve, their pain pattern is very similar to that of an entrapment – such as the one created by the piriformis. Targeted stretches in combination with massage will help to restore extensibility and length to these muscles and help alleviate the pressure over the nerve.


joe-azevedo2Joe Azevedo is a New York State/NCBTMB Licensed Massage Therapist, ARCB Certified Reflexologist, and an Advanced Reiki Practitioner. He is a graduate of the Swedish Institute and is the owner and founder of Brooklyn Reflexology.

Frozen shoulder (FS) or adhesive capsulitis is a clinically diagnosed syndrome which affects the shoulder joint (glenohumeral joint), causing pain and a progressive loss of movement. Tissue changes and a low-grade inflammatory response can lead to a shrinking of the joint capsule, joint stiffness and immobility. The condition is self-limiting and in a majority of cases will resolve over a period of time.

Causes:

There are two primary forms of FS:

Primary FS: The most common type. This form of FS is idiopathic (of unknown origin) and is often caused by some unidentified stimulus.

Secondary FS: Often the result of some previous injury affecting the shoulder joint. Some common examples could include: direct trauma, fractures, surgery, arthritis, or infection. The disuse of the shoulder predisposes it to the pathological changes associated with the condition.

Incidence:

FS has been known to affect a certain demographic of the population:

  •  It primarily occurs between 40-70 years of age
  •  It usually affects the non-dominant arm
  •  Women are affected more often than men at a 2:1 ratio
  •  It’s most prevalent in insulin dependent diabetics

Pathological Changes:

1) With the disuse of the shoulder, the shoulder capsule shrinks; the synovial lining and surrounding tendons shorten and become inflamed.

2) Adhesions form in the capsule and in the surrounding rotator cuff muscles.

3) Eventually the humerus is drawn tightly into the thickened joint capsule and becomes attached to the bone.

4) The surrounding muscles become stiff and inelastic, preventing normal range of motion.

Signs & Symptoms:

  •  The onset is usually gradual
  •  Joint stiffness and immobility
  •  Pain is dull, constant, and aching
  •  Pain with movement of the shoulder (active or passive), most acute in midrange
  •  Pain is usually worse at night, especially if sleeping on the affected side
  •  Limited range of motion of the shoulder, especially external rotation. Activities such as brushing your teeth, combing your hair, or getting dressed become painful and     difficult
  •  Shoulder is usually held in a fixed position (internally rotated & adducted, w/ the elbow flexed)

Progression of the condition:

There are three stages to FS, each lasting approximately 6 months.

Freezing Stage: A painful, inflammatory stage characterized by constant shoulder pain and muscle spasms. During this stage the fibrosis of the joint is just forming. Limited ROM is mostly due to inflammation and spasms.

Frozen Stage: Pain is no longer constant at this stage. Resting pain begins to decrease and a dull ache is present during movement. There is however an increase in joint stiffness and a progressive loss of shoulder movement.

Thawing Stage: There is a gradual restoration of movement and a decrease in pain and discomfort during this stage. Functional activities return. ROM increases but some residual restrictions could remain.

Treatment:

During the freezing stage:

  • NSAIDS and analgesics are often used to manage the pain. In some cases, corticosteroids are used when pain is unmanageable
  • Pendulum exercises may be used to help traction the joint and aid in continued movement of the shoulder
  • Passive and active ROM exercises are used to help with the pain and prevention of adhesion formation
  • Massage around the joint capsule and rotator cuff muscles to help decrease muscle stiffness and pain

During the frozen & thawing stages:

  • Moist heat applications
  • Massage to hypertonic muscles and friction to adhesions in rotator cuff muscles
  • Gentle tractioning of the joint along with ice massage to rotator cuff tendons
  • Trigger point work and myofascial release to cervical, thoracic, and shoulder girdle muscles
  • Passive ROM along with gentle stretches

Due to the pathological changes in and around the joint capsule, it’s important to keep the shoulder muscles – especially the rotator cuff muscles – as flexible as possible. This includes doing passive and active ROM exercises, gentle stretches, ice & heat applications, and trigger point work to the surrounding muscles. Doing so can have a significant impact on pain management, mobility, and ultimately the expediency of  the condition. Towards the end of the thawing stage, physical therapy along with isometrics and other muscle strengthening exercises may be helpful in restoring the shoulder to full capacity.


joe-azevedo2Joe Azevedo is a New York State/NCBTMB Licensed Massage Therapist, ARCB Certified Reflexologist, and an Advanced Reiki Practitioner. He is a graduate of the Swedish Institute and is the owner and founder of Brooklyn Reflexology.

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