Spasms can affect different types of muscles in the body. Skeletal muscle spasms are the most common, often due to overuse and muscle fatigue, dehydration, and electrolyte abnormalities. Athletes performing strenuous exercise in a hot environment are prone to this type as are people in labor-intensive occupations that work in heated conditions (i.e. construction workers). Usually, spasms occur in the large muscles, which are strained as they do most of the work. When this occurs in high temperatures it is known as heat cramps.
Muscle spasms due to overuse can also happen with routine daily activities usually impacting the neck, shoulder, and back. It comes on abruptly with searing pain and is usually short-lived. Sometimes just gently stretching can bring relief.
Smooth muscles, located within the walls of hollow organs (like the colon), can also go into spasm causing significant pain. And cardiac muscles around the heart can spasm, which results in chest pain.
Dystonia is an unusual condition affecting different parts of the body (i.e. torticollis) where muscle spasms are likely caused because of abnormalities with the chemicals that help transmit signals within the brain. Diseases of the nervous system, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, or spinal cord injury, can also be associated with muscle spasm or spasticity.
Muscle Spasms and Cannabis
NOTE FOR FIRST TIME READERS: Cannabinoids – such as THC, CBD – and terpenes are the main medically active components in cannabis (aka marijuana). For more information on these components, and much more about the plant, see our section on the Science of Cannabis.
Many people suffering from chronic muscle spasms have turned to medical cannabis to relieve their pain. The muscle relaxing properties of cannabis have been noted in the literature dating back hundreds of years.
Most studies on cannabis and the cannabinoids in the treatment of muscle spasms have focused on multiple sclerosis (MS) patients. These studies have shown that many MS patients have found significant relief of muscle spasms and pain. In a 1990 study that compared THC to codeine, a paraplegic patient who suffered from severe painful muscle spasms reported significantly more relief (reduced spasms) using THC over codeine or placebo. Using both codeine and THC improved sleep and reduced pain. More recently it has been confirmed that both topical and internal cannabis treatment can effectively relieve spasms. CBD has also shown muscle relaxant properties.
Topical applications of cannabis is a safe and a powerful method of delivery with few side effects. It can be applied to the affected area without causing psychoactive effects. Widespread spasticity often requires internal use (smoking or ingesting), with either CBD or THC as they are both effective for muscle spasms.
Maurer, M., et al. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol shows antispastic and analgesic effects in a single case double-blind trial. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience (1990) 240: 104
Randall R, 1991. Muscle Spasm, Pain & Marijuana Therapy, Galen Press, Washington, DC
Yuan JT, et al. Medical marijuana for the treatment of vismodegib-related muscle spasm. JAAD Case Rep. 2017, 3(5): 438–440.
Malfitano AM, Proto MC, Bifulco M. Cannabinoids in the management of spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2008. 4(5): 847–853.