Muscle spasms

I experienced a painful cramp in my left calf muscle in early 2020. It occurred immediately after a series of maximum speed sprints on the track. Not surprisingly it affected the calf that I had noticed was tighter and had less range of movement compared to the right¹.

It’s common advice to “stretch” a charley horse such as this, but what I did was the opposite – using a key technique of Somatic Movement (pandiculation) I slowly and gently contracted the tight muscle slightly more, and then slowly and with awareness released this contraction. I repeated this a few times and was able to relieve the cramp completely. My calf was a little sore for the next few hours as a result of working so hard, but I was able to resume normal movement immediately.

I had a similar experience the previous year when I experienced back spasms – I was using a weight machine at the gym, holding cables in each hand as I alternating stepping on and off a small platform, with a weight of about 100 pounds. Suddenly the cable in my left hand snapped, sending all of the weight into just my right hand, and the muscles on the left side of my back immediately started to spasm [a spasm is an involuntary contraction that occurs when the brain senses a muscle is near its limit. It is a protective mechanism to lock down the muscle and prevent further injury. This may occur even before a muscle reaches its maximum range or level of fatigue if the brain is habituated to having muscles in a more contracted state, e.g. sensory motor amnesia].

Fortunately I was able to immediately release the spasm by pandiculating – I slowly, gently contracted my back muscles a little bit more, and focused on noticing my even slower, controlled release of this contraction. After just a few repetitions I was out of pain and my muscles had completely released (although as with my calf, I experienced a little soreness for a few hours).

An additional short-term technique is to gently contract muscles on the opposite side of the cramp, such as the front of the shin if it is your calf muscle that is cramping. This will encourage the muscles on one side to relax as the muscles on the other side contract through reciprocal inhibition.

Before I learned about Somatic Movement I was occasionally incapacitated for days at a time with back spasms. Now I know what to do to resolve spasms and cramps quickly in those rare situations when they do occur. I have also learned, however, how to reset my levels of resting muscle tension to be much lower with pandiculation, making it far less common for me to experience these involuntary responses.

¹Although painful, cramps or spasms can also be a helpful cue for recognizing habituated muscle tension, or “sensory motor amnesia” – as the word “amnesia” suggests it can be difficult to become aware of such a pattern. This page has suggestions for other ways to recognize habituated muscle tension.

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