“Spasms”: Cramps, Dystonia, Spasticity

Muscle tissue is  everywhere — our most massive biological system — and its subtler hijinks can cause a lot of discomfort without giving itself away. No one has any doubt about the cause of pain when they get a massive calf or foot cramp, but not all cramps are so obvious, and there are other types of insidious, uncomfortable muscle contractions.

This is a broad category of trouble, which contains a number of specific examples, some of which are discussed below, like “trigger points” and the “multiple sclerosis hug” (spasticity of the ribcage), and vaginismus (spasticity of the vaginal and pelevic floor muscles). Using just a wide brush for now, the types of unwanted contractions that cause the most trouble without being easy to diagnose are cramps, dystonia, and spasticity. “Spasm” — as in a “back spasm” — is an informal and non-specific term that could be used to “explain” a lot of musculoskeletal pain, and could refer to any of the more specific types of pathological contractions.

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Fun fact: if your muscles are contracted for long enough, they will actually “freeze” like that: essentially scarred into place, a phenomenon called “contracture.”

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