or anyone in a wheelchair
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Well, I have to say a few things before we talk about this.
All of this information is derived from knowledge accrued over time from experience, asking questions, a little above average knowledge of anatomy, and what works for me. I’m not like anyone else, so none of this is actually guaranteed to help you, but I reckon it will. I’m not a doctor or anything like that either, so if you try this stuff and somehow get hurt, well, that’s on you, my friend.
Muscle spasms. Before I got injured, I had them occasionally. My definition is the involuntary contraction of muscles. If you aren’t in a wheelchair, maybe your eyelid was twitching or maybe some muscle, your shoulder perhaps, was twitching.
For myself and other people in a wheelchair with similar issues, and my understanding is that a lot of people in wheelchairs have these “issues,” muscle spasms are inconvenient, helpful, and sometimes dangerous. Overall, muscle spasms aren’t welcomed to most people. Personally, because I’ve mastered my body, I don’t have any issues with muscle spasms, and I have it under complete control. I’m hoping my advice will allow you the same.
We’ll be talking specifically about leg muscle spasms because that’s where my experience begins and ends.
For me, muscle spasms became a noticeable thing outside of rehab. I don’t actually remember if I had any while I was in rehab, but I’m sure I did and they were just so minimal that it didn’t make a difference enough for me to have a memory of it happening.
For paraplegics or anyone with some spinal cord injury and little to no motor control, nearly all movement or muscle contraction is considered (to me) a muscle spasm.
There are two common ways that I get muscle spasms and this will likely be different than yours, either my legs will lock straight out, with my hip, quadricep, calf, and hamstring muscles all contracting in some way. The second way is for my hamstrings to tighten and if I’m lying down, it’ll draw my knees inward. Other than these two, my calves alone might have a muscle spasm and my feet will go tip-toe while I’m in my chair. Sometimes my leg will just jump, which seems like a rapid contraction of my quadricep and hip muscles.
Now for the main event.
Here’s the breakdown:
When do muscle spasms happen? What causes them?
Reactionary – hurt, touch/temperature, after stretching, or from not stretching/moving
Movement – lying back, bumped the leg, bumpy ground
E.T. – a questionable occurrence
There are a few things for me that are known to cause muscle spasms. To start with how muscle spasms can be helpful, my legs will react to pain or something outside of the “normal.”
When I was in rehab, I remember this happening for the first time when I was in the shower and sprayed cold water on my feet and they kind of jumped away from the water. Don’t try this with hot water, cold is fine though.
Sometimes I’ll hit my toe on something and I’ll get a similar reaction. This is helpful because it indicates to me that maybe something happened that hurt me and since I only feel a negligible level of pain, that muscle spasm tells me I should check and see if I just cut my leg or burned my toe.
So, one reason for muscle spasms can be called reactionary. This is something that you can’t stop from happening, it happens from the environment, and it mostly helps.
A few more reasons for a reactionary muscle spasm would be touch and stretching. When I go to massage therapy, my legs might have some type of muscle spasm after someone touches the bottom of my foot.
If you don’t stretch regularly, then you should, but if it’s been a while and you stretch for the first time, then you may notice some muscle spasms of whichever muscle you stretched.
If you have a common muscle spasm of a specific muscle and your leg moves in a certain way, that’s a good sign that you should be stretching more. If my hamstrings aren’t well stretched, then I might have muscle spasms that bend my leg in.
Movement muscle spasms occur as a reaction to a certain movement. This can be useful depending on what happens, but more than that, it’s predictable. For me, this is when I lay back or anytime my torso is 150 degrees or more from my legs. I see this as my body wanting to stand up when my body goes straight as if I were to be standing up.
This is predictable and because of that, I can tell when a transfer or something I do might induce a muscle spasm and I can plan accordingly. Also, if you’ve seen the video of my getting into an aircraft, you’ll notice that I was hanging out of the doorway and then my legs had this muscle spasm and then I stood up on my feet and it helped me get into the plane.
Another movement type spasm is when I’m in the wheelchair and going over gravel or some very uneven surface. When there is a lot of shaking or bumps, it will make my calves have a muscle spasm and my feet will go tippy-toe or slide forward, both aren’t an issue but can be annoying. A great solution, absolutely amazing solution is here.
Then, there are of course the muscle spasms that you can’t quite figure out why they happen. There is definitely a reason, but it isn’t obvious without more analysis than its worth. This could be when you’re laying down and your leg will twitch or sitting down and your foot will raise.
Stopping a muscle spasm
Brute force – moving against the muscle spasm
Patience – waiting for it to go away
Prediction – putting something in place to stop the muscle spasm
It isn’t always convenient when a muscle spasm happens, it can slow things down, cause a transfer to go awry, and maybe even keep you from doing something momentarily.
The thing with muscle spasms is that they don’t last, and for me, their potency over immediate time decreases in the same way a bouncy ball will. Meaning that if I lay back and my legs lock straight out, I wait for it to stop, sit back up, then lay down again, and the muscle spasm won’t happen or be as powerful.
The first tactic and my favorite is to just be patient. Let it happen, wait it out and then it’ll subside. If you do the same movement or do something reactionary that causes a muscle spasm multiple times within the same few minutes, you might find that after the second or third time there is no muscle spasm.
Aside from waiting it out, you can go for brute force, which I don’t think has any negative effect. Basically, if my foot is raised while I’m in a wheelchair, it’s because my calf is tightening (think of when people do calf raises for working out) and I will sometimes just push down on my knee to make my foot go flat again. This doesn’t always stop the muscle spasm completely, but for the calf example, it keeps my foot from being raised.
Another example of brute force would be going against the muscle. What this looks like for me is when I lay back and my legs go straight out, my hip muscles are also activating and cause my torso to be pushed back (to lie down completely), if I’m able to get my chest to my knees, this will stop the muscle spasm entirely. So, there may be a muscle spasm that happens when you do something and you can brute force your way to stop it by doing a counter movement.
As for the method of prediction, much like I mentioned earlier with the belt to keep your feet on your footplate, there may be things you can do to stop a muscle spasm from happening at all. When you do a transfer or a general movement and you know what does and generally doesn’t cause a muscle spasm, then you can either be prepared and have your hands in place to counter the muscle or have something ready so that it doesn’t catch you off guard.
Mitigating muscle spasms
Movement – leg bike
Stretching – stretches
There are really two ways to stop muscle spasms from happening. But before I elaborate, the cheap seats might’ve missed that this is all from my experience and it’s plausible that none of this will apply, or all of it will work swimmingly.
I mentioned before that muscle spasms will reduce in strength and occurrence when you are doing the same thing over and over within some amount of time. If there is some specific movement you do that causes a muscle spasm and you do it repeatedly within a few minutes, the muscle spasms will reduce.
There are machines that you can use to move your legs. The one I used is pictured below and I could use my arms to move the pedals and those would make my legs move. In the beginning, my legs weren’t cooperating, but after 20 minutes, it was going smoothly, and afterward, I didn’t have any muscle spasms for any reason.
Not only is this healthy for you overall, but it also gets your legs moving in a way that can stop muscle spasms by giving them continuous movement.
If there isn’t a machine available, the next best way to mitigate muscle spasms is by stretching. When stretching out, it’s important to know that holding a stretch for an hour won’t help, it’ll actually hurt. You need to treat stretching like a workout, so sets and reps. It might look like pulling back your foot to stretch your calf 4 times each foot for 2 minutes each time, with a little break in between.
Staying well stretched is to infinity and beyond important. Sitting down all day or most of the day, avoiding technical terms, is not good for your muscles or body. If you expect to recover, and I fully expect that, then you should be preparing for it everyday by staying healthy and keeping your body in its best condition.
Immediate actionable items: Determine when you’ll start stretching and create a routine.
Summary: Muscle spasms are involuntary muscle contractions that can become a nuisance. We talk about why muscle spasms might be happening, how to stop them when they do and how to prevent that from happening or reduce the frequency.
Overdeliver: If you’re able to use a machine that moves your legs for you, close your eyes and visualize walking. I would do this as well as watch videos of myself walking before I got injured, if you have those, they might help.