Shooting pain in a muscle that quickly goes away
November 4, 2012 9:15 PM   Subscribe

What's this shooting pain in my lower leg?

Every so often (once every few months) I feel a very sharp shooting pain in my left calf. I guess I would call it "pulling a muscle," or something.

My very unscientific description of what it feels like is the following: as if a muscle tendon, or part of the muscle, has crossed another other one, is in the wrong place, and needs to be put back. However, nothing seemed to have *caused* the pain: no force, no trauma... for example, yesterday, I was just lying in bed when... BOOM.

It is REALLY painful. One of the worst pains I've ever felt in my life, no question. Thankfully, it goes away very quickly (within 15 seconds, probably). In particular, when I walk on the leg, the shooting pain goes away quickly, as if the force of me putting weight on the leg puts the muscle/tendon/whatever back in place.

[I've also felt this same pain in my left shoulder. Here there would be slightly more obviously a cause: perhaps I would move my arm weirdly or awkwardly, and then I would feel the pain -- again, as if a muscle or muscle tendon or whatever was out of placed, crossed with another one, and only when they went back into place would the pain dissipate.

Side note: a few months ago I fell on my arm/shoulder and dislocated the joint. I think, in retrospect, I also overworked the shoulder at the gym and weakened it, which might have been related to this feeling I felt every so often and could have contributed to the shoulder dislocating. Nothing about this side note seems to apply to the calf, though.]

I wonder what to call this pain ("pulling a muscle"?), and sometimes think it's damn near impossible to describe things within our bodies to people who are (of course) outside our bodies. What IS a "charley horse," for example? Or a "muscle spasm"? Or a foot "falling asleep"?

So what would you call this phenomenon? Does this feeling ring a bell with people?
posted by lewedswiver to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Sounds to me like you're describing a cramp (a leg cramp is sometimes known as a "charley horse" in the US).
posted by zachlipton at 9:20 PM on November 4, 2012

A charley horse (or a muscle spasm) is when the muscle involuntarily contracts and doesn't release. Hurts like hell, but I wouldn't describe it as "sharp" personally, and in the calf it's particularly obvious because if you poke it you can feel the muscle gone all rock-hard. Calf cramps are often blamed on electrolyte imbalance, and particularly potassium deficiency. I have often gotten them while lying in bed - occasionally when asleep.

"Pulling a muscle" generally refers to a minor partial tear in the muscle. It's a trauma thing - not likely to happen when lying in bed, and not likely to repeat regularly. Simliar to a sprain (which is more or less the same thing involving a tendon or ligament.)

A limb "falling asleep" is when you restrict the flow of blood and the limb goes numb. The actual sensation people are usually talking about is the prickling "pins and needles" feeling of regained sensation when the restriction is removed.

(Not a doctor, just a battered old ex-jock far too familiar with this category of slang. All usages are modern Midwest USA.)
posted by restless_nomad at 9:23 PM on November 4, 2012

Response by poster: BTW, I wouldn't describe this pain as a "charley horse," based on wikipedia-ing that term.

I wouldn't describe it as a cramp, either. For me, a cramp is a slightly diffuse pain often felt, say, in the gut when running while being dehydrated.

This, however, feels distinctly mechanical in its origin, if that makes sense. Not chemical.

To the extent that this question is as much linguistic as medical, I'll include the following -- I'm from the midwestern US.
posted by lewedswiver at 9:25 PM on November 4, 2012

Best answer: For me, a cramp is a slightly diffuse pain often felt, say, in the gut when running while being dehydrated.

They're actually the same thing, but intestinal cramps feel different because nerves in the viscera are arranged and behave a little differently (and the muscle is different, too.) Skeletal muscles are very mechanical and the cramps feel pretty mechanical to me - with a calf cramp, you can literally grab your foot and move it and feel where the "string" has been shortened.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:30 PM on November 4, 2012

Yeah, these. They're common. The trouble is that they're infrequent enough that you can't remember if pointing your toe up or down makes it better or worse. They hurt like hell. Come to think of it, if anybody knows which way to turn your foot, let me know so I can make a note and put it by my bed.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 9:53 PM on November 4, 2012

Excluding voodoo and ghosts, or vitamin deficiency and/or dehydration, the cause is likely to be soft tissue hypertension emanating from some variety of minor functional misalignment. (It's not unthinkable that your shoulder injury could be unrelated as losing use of an arm for a while could certainly have a subtle effect on gait.)

Start foam rolling, or better yet, stick rolling your calves and plantar fascia (some other great tools to get at these are a soft ball or wallpaper seam roller). Work on ankle mobility. If none of this helps, a podiatrist, physio or even a good running store can give a gait assessment and advise on corrective footwear changes.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 9:54 PM on November 4, 2012

What you are saying (including your clarification) still sounds like a cramp to me. My occasional leg cramps feel quite mechanical in origin. The muscle itself goes all piercing and wonky.
posted by unknowncommand at 9:55 PM on November 4, 2012

Cramps are often intense and stabby, even in the belly area. For instance, have you ever gotten a "side stitch" while running or swimming? That's a cramp.
posted by acidic at 10:06 PM on November 4, 2012

My vote is a muscle spasm.
posted by rhizome at 10:14 PM on November 4, 2012

Response by poster: On reading comments here and more closely reading online articles, I think a leg cramp it is... I've just always thought of the word "cramp" to describe a stomach cramp -- which feels so different from this as to seem utterly unrelated.

Thanks all!
posted by lewedswiver at 10:21 PM on November 4, 2012

if anybody knows which way to turn your foot, let me know so I can make a note and put it by my bed

You have to do the thing that seems like a Bad Idea: Stand on the foot. The spasm makes the foot point down/straight, so you have to make it go in the opposite direction. Also: Eat more bananas.
posted by Houstonian at 2:50 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I get "charlie horses" whenever I'm dehydrated. Try drinking more water, and go see the doc about it.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:04 AM on November 5, 2012

I used to do a lot of dance and the cramps I used to get from that were a more extreme versions of what I used to get while lying in bed half asleep - definitely in my calf and definitely out of nowhere. The ones I used to get while dancing where do painful that they utterly paralysed me and I couldn't do anything apart from hyperventilate a bit and hope. Luckily they were very rare. I think it does sound like a cramp.

Incidentally, you're very lucky to have never had this bad a pain from a stomach cramp! They feel quite similar to me when you get really, really unwell.
posted by kadia_a at 9:44 AM on November 5, 2012

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