An introduction to muscle twitching
If you've ever experienced muscle twitching, you'll know that it can be a little alarming. Understanding what's at the root of the problem, though, should make it easier to deal with. Muscle twitches can be caused by:
- Poor nutrition and lack of electrolytes
- Intense exercise
- High caffeine and alcohol intake
- Poor sleep
In this piece I will take a detailed look at why these things may cause muscle twitching, plus I will offer some advice to deal with the issue.
1. Poor nutrition and lack of electrolytes
Electrolytes such as calcium, potassium and magnesium are essential for maintaining healthy muscle function.
Our in-house nutritionist Emma helps to explain this in a little more detail:
"Calcium plays an important part in muscle contractions and nerve signalling as does magnesium; this nutrient works very closely with calcium and may actually help to reduce muscle cramps and twitches. Plant-based foods often offer both these nutrients in combination.
Potassium is another electrolyte which has an important part to play in nerve signalling and muscular contractions; therefore, deficiencies in this nutrient could contribute to changes in muscle function.
Finally, vitamin D is also crucial for the health of the muscles, as well as our bones. Vitamin D helps support the absorption of calcium, plus, it too is thought to have some involvement in nerve impulse transmission."
If our dietary choices mean that we aren't getting enough of these minerals, it may therefore result in muscle twitching.
It is also important to note that certain medications, including those for blood pressure, can impact the balance of electrolytes in the body.
Vital fluids are lost through sweat, urine, vomit and other means and this can result in dehydration. Dehydration affects the entire body, from an external to a cellular level.
When we are dehydrated, blood flow to the working muscles is significantly reduced. This can impact the ability of these muscles to carry out normal functions like contracting and relaxing and this may result in muscle twitching.
Important electrolytes, such as potassium and calcium, are also lost through fluids. As we already know, these are crucial for efficient muscle function.
It is particularly common for muscle twitching to occur around the eyes as a result of dehydration, though other factors could be to blame here, such as long hours spent at a computer, or irritants like dust.
Muscle twitching is common after a period of exercise, especially if the activity has been particularly strenuous and the muscles are fatigued and over-worked.
During exercise we lose lots of nutrients and electrolytes through sweat and, as we now know, a lack of magnesium, calcium, magnesium (and more) can lead to muscle twitches.1
Twitching is most often felt in the calves, thighs and biceps after exercise as these areas of the body are put under the most strain.
Lactic acid can also build in the muscles during exercise and this too contributes to muscle twitching.
At this time the body uses its stores of oxygen to convert glucose into energy. If there isn't enough oxygen to carry out this process, however, then lactate is produced as this can be transferred into energy without the need for oxygen. Lactic acid cannot be used as quickly as it is made, though, and this can result in symptoms including muscle pain and twitching, as well as nausea and weakness.
4. Caffeine and alcohol
Your body is really clever in that it gives you clear signs when you've had too much caffeine, and one of these signs is muscle twitching. The stimulants in high levels of caffeine can cause small, involuntary tension in muscle fibres across the body.
As well as this, caffeine acts as a mild diuretic so, if you drink high levels, you are more at risk of becoming dehydrated. As I explained above, dehydration can contribute to muscle twitching.
Caffeine can also block the absorption of certain nutrients and electrolytes meaning the likes of magnesium, potassium and vitamin D, which are needed to help prevent muscle twitching, will not be absorbed properly.
In some cases, muscle twitching can also be the result of very high alcohol consumption.2 Alcohol is yet another thing that may affect the body's ability to take in nutrients and electrolytes that are important for the health of the muscles.3
5. Poor sleep
Muscle twitching may arise when the body is tired or sleep deprived, particularly if you then go on to exercise.
The brain uses chemical signals called neurotransmitters to communicate with the body but, when we are sleep deprived, the brain's ability to send these signals is reduced. This can result in it sending extra signals to the muscle fibres, thus resulting in a twitch. These neurotransmitters may also build up in the brain which may also cause twitching.
Stress is another possible cause of muscle twitching. When our stress system is activated, the body prepares to fight off imminent danger. In response to this danger – whether it is fighting off a bear or dealing with stress caused by work – our nervous system behaves erratically. Since our nerve impulses are responsible for muscle control, it comes as no surprise that stress can cause our muscles to twitch!
In some cases, certain medications such as antidepressants, and those used to control blood pressure, may result in muscle twitching. Some antidepressants have a stimulating effect and this can cause involuntary contractions of muscle fibres, whilst blood pressure medications can influence the balance of electrolytes.
If you think that your medication could be behind your symptoms then visit your GP for further advice. It is really important that you do not alter your medication before consulting a doctor.
Nicotine can also be a cause of muscle twitching as this is a stimulant. If you are struggling with a smoking habit then speak to your doctor to find advice on giving up. You can also visit the NHS website for tips.
Other reasons for muscle twitching
Although muscle twitches are most often harmless, they can occasionally be a symptom of a more serious underlying health condition, for example, those affecting the kidneys and/or nerves. More serious conditions that can cause muscle twitching include:
- Multiple sclerosis – this condition affects the brain and spinal cord and, as a result, symptoms can develop across the body. Balance, sensation, movement and vision are just some areas that can be affected
- Muscular dystrophy – this covers a range of conditions that, over time, cause the muscles to weaken
- Isaac's syndrome – this is a rare condition that can cause muscle twitching, stiffness and cramps
- Pinched spinal nerve – this is when the tissues that surround a nerve put too much pressure on it. This can occur in the back, leg, hands and other areas of the body and causes pain, tingling, numbness and weakness
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – this is a group of neurological diseases. These are rare and mainly affect the nerve cells
- Lupus – this is an autoimmune condition that can cause a range of symptoms in areas including the joints, brain, kidneys and skin. It occurs when the immune system attacks its own organs and tissues
- Benign fasciculation syndrome – this is a neurological disorder that causes muscle twitching in areas across the body including the eyes, hands, fingers, feet and legs
- Dystonia – this is a neurological movement disorder that can cause painful muscle spasms when signals from the brain aren't correct
- Motor neuron disease – this is a group of diseases affecting the spinal cord and nerves in the brain. Messages from the motor neurons stop reaching the muscles and this can cause symptoms including stiffness and weakness.
Treating and preventing muscle twitches
Address your diet
A balanced diet containing more calcium-rich foods, as well as potassium and magnesium can help to ease muscle twitching.
Sweet potatoes, dairy products and tofu are all rich in calcium. Salmon and broccoli are just a couple of good sources of potassium, whilst magnesium is present in the likes of spinach and bananas.
Try to avoid processed goods (such as biscuits and jars of sauce) which offer less nutritionally – you can check out our healthy recipes page if you need inspiration for some fresher alternatives!
Our banana and avocado smoothie is also a good option as it contains magnesium and potassium which, as I've explained, are very important for the muscles
To help your muscles it is really important to drink more water, particularly when exercising, as more fluids are lost at this time.
It is recommended that we drink around 8 or 9 glasses of plain, still water a day, and even more if the weather is hot or you are doing exercise. This may not seem like a lot of water, but many of us still struggle to reach this intake on a daily basis – after all, let's face it, water isn't the most exciting of beverages! Why not try infusing your water with mint, strawberries or ginger for some extra flavour.
Reduce your caffeine and alcohol intake
Cutting down your consumption of caffeine and alcohol may help to get any muscle twitches under control. Rather than giving up caffeine altogether, though, you could try swapping to some non-caffeinated varieties.
Herbal teas and Bambu are excellent options. The latter is not only caffeine-free; it is also high in potassium which helps support cell activity and prevents muscle twitches.
Get more sleep
Try to make sure you get at least 8 hours of sleep every night to help control muscle twitching.
To help you sleep better, get up and go to bed at the same time each night. This will help to make sure your circadian rhythm (sleep cycle) is not disrupted by an irregular sleeping pattern.
If you struggle to get to sleep, or wake up regularly during the night, consider trying a sleep remedy like Dormeasan to help you drift off to sleep. Dormeasan is a herbal sleeping aid and is used to restore a natural sleep without the groggy side-effects that can happen with sleeping medication.
Managing your stress effectively will help to control nerve impulses. Exercise, meditation, or breathing techniques are useful tools to help alleviate stress.
In addition, herbal remedies can be effective at reducing stress. I'd recommend Stress Relief Daytime which is made from fresh valerian and hops to help relieve mild anxiety and stress.
Massage is another good option because not only is it very relaxing, it can also help to soothe muscles and improve blood flow.
Try gentle exercise
If you experience muscle twitching whilst exercising it is most likely that your workout is too strenuous. Therefore, you may benefit from switching to a gentler activity or, at least, reducing the amount of time you spend doing a strenuous workout each week.
Setting aside some time to cool down and warm up after a period of exercise is also really important when trying to control muscle twitching.
You can visit our Get Active hub for some simple warm up exercises for any type of sport.
What’s the difference between muscle cramps and twitching?
Muscle cramps are strong, painful and involuntary contractions of the whole muscle. Muscle twitches, on the other hand, are not painful and normally occur in muscle fibres rather than the whole muscle.
Muscle twitching can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few weeks. Twitches that last any longer than this can be an indication of an underlying health condition and should be checked by a doctor. Usually, however, they are not a cause for concern.
When should I see the doctor about muscle twitching?
You should consult your doctor if you experience twitching for more than 2 weeks, you have a twitch in more than one place, the affected area feels weak or you think medication may be causing the problem.4
At a consultation your doctor will discuss the possible causes of muscle twitching, such as nutritional deficiency or dehydration. They may then organise a follow up appointment if the symptoms have not subsided in a couple of weeks. If symptoms are persistent, and your doctor is unable to determine the cause themselves, they may refer you to a specialist.
Originally published on 2 August 2017 (updated on 20 June 2019)