Muscle spasms, also known as muscle cramps or a charley horse, are involuntary contractions of the muscles. Although these contractions can be very painful, they are rarely dangerous or a cause for concern. However, severe or lasting pain should always be examined by your doctor. According to the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, almost everyone gets muscle spasms at some time. Common areas affected are the feet, thighs, lower legs, hands, arms, abdomen, neck, shoulders, jaw and even along the rib cage. Although there are many self remedies to treat the occasional mild muscle spasm, acupuncture may provide relief for more painful and common occurrences.
There are many causes for muscle spasms, such as injury, misuse, overuse, diet, stress and anatomical irregularities. Some muscle spasms can be prevented by proper stretching before strenuous sports such as running or swimming, or with repetitive activities such as tennis. Certain dietary factors such as dehydration or low levels of potassium and calcium are also preventable causes. More painful or recurring spasms could be a result of a prolonged stress, a structural issue or an injury that may require medical attention such as a herniated disk.
Acupuncture has been around for more than 2,000 years. Though popular in Asia and parts of Europe for centuries, acupuncture has grown in popularity only recently in the United States. Due to this increased public interest, more studies have been conducted in an attempt to measure and validate the claims of practitioners and their patients. According to a 2007 National Health Interview Survey, 3.1 million U.S. adults and 150,000 children had acupuncture in 1996. In a study conducted by the Department of Pediatric Dentistry at Nippon Dental University in Tokyo on a group muscle pain in the jaw, acupuncture treatment was compared to "sham" acupuncture. The study found that both reduced muscle pain. Acupuncture recognizes any point on the body with pain as an "ashi" point, or pain point. Some studies refer to this as a "sham" acupoint, which is inaccurate. In acupuncture practice, any point on the body is a "real" acupoint. Many experts agree that although more research is needed to determine the efficacy of acupuncture, better methods of conducting those studies is also needed.
Acupuncture is the practice of inserting thin needles into the skin for a variety of health conditions. Acupuncture practiced today, including the acupuncture points and diagnostic techniques, remains similar to ancient times. The needles used in modern practice, however, are sterile, stainless steel and single-use-only for safety purposes. An acupuncture treatment for muscle spasm should include a full physical examination and question-and-answer session. The acupuncturist may try to re-create the spasm by asking you to perform the movement or position that creates the issue in an effort to accurately diagnose and treat the issue. The acupuncturist may then choose to insert a needle on a specific acupoint or exactly where the pain is, which is called an "ashi" point. Both methods are considered appropriate and effective within the acupuncture field. If appropriate, electro-stimulation is added to the treatment by attaching small wires to the needles in order to send small micro-currents to the muscle in an effort to relax it. This is rarely painful, and many patients find the sensation enjoyable.
Acupuncture is considered safe with minimal risks when administered by a qualified practitioner. The government regulates proper use of acupuncture needles, stating that practitioners must use needles that are sterile and single-use only. Acupuncture needles are recognized as a Class II medical device by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Acupuncture -- including that with electro-stimulation -- is never to be self-administered for safety reasons; improper use can result in injury and infection. Electro-stimulation is contraindicated for patients who are pregnant, or have a pacemaker or a history of seizures.
Ask your doctor if acupuncture is right for you. You should also find a licensed acupuncturist or ask your general practitioner to refer you to one. Your acupuncturist should be able to tell you how many sessions you'll need and whether your treatments are covered by your insurance. Remember, though acupuncture may be effective for your condition, it's not a substitute for the medical care provided by a physician.
- National Institutes of Health : Muscle cramps http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003193.htm
- National Institutes of Health : Charley Horse
- National Institute of Health : Acupuncture for Pain
- National Institutes of Health : Acupuncture and sham acupuncture reduce muscle pain in myofascial pain patients
- FDA : Code of Federal Regulations Title 21
Gianina G. Knoth is a licensed acupuncture physician and has been writing professionally since 1995. Her work has been featured in national television and print campaigns, including the "The New York Post" and "Sun-Sentinel." She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts and a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Oriental Medicine from the Atlantic Institute of Oriental Medicine.