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Muscle Spasms in MS: What Do They Feel Like?

Medically reviewed by Amit M. Shelat, D.O.
Written by Imee Williams
Updated on April 6, 2022

Types | How They Affect People | Management | Support

Muscle spasms (also called cramps or fasciculations) are a common symptom of multiple sclerosis (MS). Spasticity, which causes muscle stiffness and tightness, affects about 20 percent of people with MS. Spasms are characterized as painful contractions or tightening of one or more muscles that may cause the body part to jerk in an uncontrolled way.

Just like MS can affect people in many different ways, spasticity can manifest in various muscles, cause different sensations, and make daily activities harder in a variety of ways. No matter how you experience spasticity with MS, you are not alone. Read on to learn about different types of muscle spasms and how they affect MyMSTeam members.

Types of Muscle Spasms in MS

In normal movement, some muscles relax while others contract. With MS, damage to nerves in the brain or spinal cord can disrupt this action, causing many muscles to contract at once, yet resist being stretched. This change in the motor system causes a tug of war between your muscles.

Some muscle contractions can feel like a charley horse or menstrual cramp. Others are jerky movements, similar to the way your leg jumps during a reflex test. One MyMSTeam member likened her excruciating charley horses to “late labor pains.”

There are three different types of muscle spasms in MS:

  • Flexor spasm — The limb bends up toward the body
  • Extensor spasm — The limb shoots out, away from the body
  • Adductor spasm, commonly in the legs and thighs — The limbs come in toward each other

Muscle spasms can occur in different muscles at different times. They last between a few seconds to 15 minutes or longer, sometimes recurring many times. If muscles jerk repeatedly — such as a rhythmic tapping of the foot on the floor — it is called clonus.

Muscle spasms may be triggered by various situations:

  • Sudden position changes or movements
  • Extreme temperatures
  • Infections
  • Wearing tight clothing
  • Constipation
  • A full bladder
  • Stress

Some people experience more muscle spasms during MS relapses, and some triggers for spasticity are also common relapse triggers. Learning to identify and address what triggers your muscle spasms can help prevent and treat these difficult symptoms.

How Do Spasms Affect People With MS?

Muscle spasms can affect any muscle in the body, but the most common spasms in MS are in the arms, legs, or the trunk and back. Severe ongoing muscle spasms can disrupt mobility and have a significant impact on quality of life.

For 1 in 5 people with MS, spasms regularly affect their daily activities such as bathing, dressing, or walking. It can be debilitating when your arms or legs don’t work properly or when your body acts in painful, unpredictable ways.

Members of MyMSTeam describe their muscle spasms:

  • “One big tense-up that won’t release.”
  • “Really, really tight muscles that no amount of stretching helps.”
  • “Burning, cramping, and spasms that are so severe, it feels like my muscles are ripping away from my bones.”
  • “My legs feel like there are electrical bolts going through them.”
  • “I walk like a robot.”
  • “My legs, arms, and back muscles are so sore, it’s like I worked out hard!”

Walking and Standing

Muscle spasms in the lower extremities can make it difficult for many members to walk, maintain balance, or climb stairs. “During the day, my toes curl up tight with my big toes going in the opposite direction,” said one member of MyMSTeam. Another member shared, “Feels like I’m walking in quicksand.” “My left leg feels like I’m wearing a concrete shoe,” described someone else. “My right leg kicks out without warning,” wrote another member.

Some people with MS may experience foot drop — muscle weakness in the ankle, or the muscles cannot smoothly control the foot’s actions when walking.

Sitting

Many people living with MS also struggle with limited mobility. Over time, lack of movement can also cause muscle spasms. “I start to get butt spasms, especially after sitting all day,” wrote one member. “My legs twitch sometimes when I get up or stretch,” said another. Some members have found it helpful to place pillows or cushions on chairs. Having good posture and support for the body when sitting can help you avoid aches and pains.

Sleeping

Many members report that spasticity frequently occurs at night and disrupts sleep. The jerking of the arms or legs can cause you or your partner to wake up several times during the night, leading to daytime fatigue. “Every evening for about 30 minutes, my legs and torso get very twitchy,” explained one member. “It is annoying and tiring.” Another member wrote, “I feel like I have something moving deep under my skin. It travels from one place to another.”

Other Aspects of Daily Life

Upper body spasms can lead to dysfunction that interferes with eating, writing, dressing, and even driving. One member shared, “Feels like you got punched in the arm.” Another said, “I have had this pain in my arm for a good month now and it aches a lot.”

For others, symptoms of spasticity occur in their hands and fingers. "My hands will spasm into claws, so badly that I refrain from driving any farther than the store,” explained one MyMSTeam member. Hand spasticity can create a deformity that one member calls "the claw.” Prolonged muscle cramping can lead to contractures, in which joints become frozen and immobile and range of motion is lost.

Managing Muscle Spasms

Luckily, there are many ways to treat spasticity for people with MS. Talk to your neurologist or another health care provider if muscle spasms are affecting your quality of life. They may refer you to an occupational therapist or physical therapist. For people experiencing severe spasticity, treatment options may include medications such as baclofen (a muscle relaxant) or Botox treatments, in which botulinum toxin is injected into muscles.

It can be valuable to regularly stretch your muscles. The MS Society offers a guide for MS stretches that can help you get started with a stretching exercise routine. Customized stretches and other exercises to preserve range of motion may be taught in physical therapy or occupational therapy sessions.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyMSTeam is the social network for people with MS. On MyMSTeam, more than 183,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with MS.

What do your muscle spasms feel like? How do they affect your daily life? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Updated on April 6, 2022
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Amit M. Shelat, D.O. is a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology and the American College of Physicians. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Imee Williams is a freelance writer and Fulbright scholar, with a B.S. in neuroscience from Washington State University. Learn more about her here.

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