Most people have sore, aching muscles from time to time. Muscle pain can involve a small area or your whole body, ranging from mild to excruciating.1,2,3

A muscle spasm,although it can be very painful, is different from muscle pain. A muscle spasm occurs when a muscle or group of muscles contract involuntarily and cannot relax.3,4 Although the exact cause is not always known, muscle overuse, muscle fatigue, stress or improper posture may all lead to muscle spasms.3,4,5

Pain and muscle spasm can create a vicious cycle where pain causes a muscle to contract and muscle spasm results in pain. It is important to relax the muscle spasm and to alleviate the pain to restore the muscle’s normal function.3,6

Muscle spasms

A muscle spasm can cause minor discomfort or severe pain.3 Torticollis is an example of a severe spasm of a specific neck muscle that causes the head to tilt and rotate into an abnormal position.7,8

Muscle spasm commonly causes pain in the neck, upper back and shoulders. These spasms usually arise from an injury, repetitive activities or poor posture.3 Stress and emotional tension can also cause muscles to tighten, resulting in pain and stiffness.9 Muscles that remain tensed and contracted at the back of the neck can cause a tension headache.3,9

A tension headache is characterised by a sensation of muscle tightness or pressure pain on both sides of the head, often described as feeling like a tight band around the head.10 The head and neck muscles may also be tender to the touch.10

Muscle pain

Sprains and strains are common injuries associated with muscle pain, swelling, and muscle spasm.3 They are often caused by sports injuries, yet they can just as easily occur during everyday activities such as walking, gardening, cleaning the house or even at work.3,6 A sprain is the stretching or tearing of ligaments.3 Ligaments are the tough bands of fibrous tissue that connect two bones together to formyour joints.11 A strain is a stretching or tearing of a muscle or tendon.3 A tendon is a fibrous cord of tissue that connects muscle to bone.11 Strain on back muscles and spinal ligaments through heavy lifting may also cause back pain.3 It is important to note though that not all back pain is caused by injury to muscles or ligaments, and that a herniated disk in your spine, abnormal curves in your spine such as scoliosis and narrowing of the spinal canal may also cause back pain3 (You should always seek medical advice for any back pain that is persistent or unexplained).

An example of sudden unexpected movement that can cause neck pain is whiplash. Whiplash is an injury sustained through rapid forward and backward movement of the head, like the cracking of a whip.12 Symptoms include neck pain and stiffness, shoulder weakness, dizziness, headache and memory loss.12

Treatment of muscle spasm and muscle pain

Less severe cases of muscle spasm or pain can be managed at home and may respond well to the RICE principle which includes rest of the injured muscle or joint, ice and compression bandages, and elevation to help reduce swelling and pain.3,11

Minimising discomfort associated with pain, inflammation and muscle spasm is an important step in managing conditions associated with muscle pain or muscle spasm.3 Paracetamol and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen are examples of pain relievers.13,14 NSAIDs also reduce inflammation in addition to pain relief.14

Muscle relaxants interrupt the muscle spasm-pain cycle, relieving the muscle spasm, thereby also relieving the pain to restore normal muscle function and range of movement.3 Examples of muscle relaxants include orphenadrine, cyclobenzaprine and methocarbamol.15 Muscle relaxants may be combined with a pain reliever such as paracetamol for additional pain relief, or with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen for additional anti-inflammatory action.3,6, 15

If you have a painful muscle spasm or muscle injury, speak to your healthcare provider to determine if a muscle relaxant is a suitable treatment option for you.

Muscle spasm and muscle pain frequently asked questions


A cramp is a sudden, unintentional contraction of a muscle or group of muscles.4
Generally, the cramp can last from a few seconds to minutes. Palpating the muscle area of the cramp will present a knot.4 Dehydration, a depletion of electrolytes (salts and minerals), too much high-intensity exercise and muscle fatigue are just some of the factors that can cause muscle cramps. Stretching and rehydrating with an electrolyte-containing sports drink may help alleviate cramps due to exercise.5


Although neck muscle spasms are a common cause of neck pain, they are not the only cause.3,16 Pressure on the nerves or spinal cord, or an infection may also cause neck pain.16 If you experience any of the following, you should see your doctor:16

  • Loss of consciousness after a whiplash injury
  • Fever, or night sweats
  • Tenderness over the bony part of your neck (vertebrae)
  • Clumsiness in your hands and difficulty walking
  • Pain that keeps you up at night

There are three types of muscles (smooth, skeletal, and cardiac). Smooth muscles are used to control the flow of substances within the lumens of hollow organs like vessels and bowels and are involuntarily controlled. Skeletal muscles are the only muscles that can move the body skeleton. Skeletal muscles are attached to bones and arranged in opposing groups around joints. Cardiac muscles are found in the heart only and used to pump blood; they are like the smooth muscles, involuntarily controlled.11 Muscle pain and muscle spasms due to injury, overuse or poor posture usually affect the skeletal muscles, tendons and ligaments.3

DISCLAIMER: This editorial has been brought to you by Radiant Health. Content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide or replace medical or other professional advice. For more information, speak to your Healthcare Professional. NZ-2023-03-0003. TAPS NP19165.

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