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Friday, November 7, 2008

Annoying Body Glitches: Can We Prevent Them?

By: Vicki Santillano

Last night, I was ripped from a peaceful slumber gasping and writhing in pain, clutching my calf in shocked agony as the muscle throbbed and burned mercilessly. Yes, it was the dreadful charley horse invading my night once again. I’ve been getting these terrible muscle spasms routinely since I was little, yet it’s only recently that I’ve begun to wonder why they even happen in the first place.

Our bodies are organized jumbles of parts and functions with specific purposes, but like any fine-tuned machine, there is room for internal error every now and then. We’ve all experienced some variation of these “issues”—hiccups, spasms, odd stomach noises, and so forth. Many are embarrassing or annoying, but so common that we don’t think much about their causes or potential solutions. However, there are reasons behind things as seemingly insignificant as hiccupping, and sometimes, there are ways to avoid them.

Charley Horses
Charley horses, which usually occur in the legs or feet, are very common and strike people of all ages and activity levels. What happens during these nighttime episodes is a muscle begins contracting and is unable to pick up cues to stop, causing discomfort and muscle fatigue. A variety of factors, including sore muscles, hormonal or mineral imbalances, and dehydration, can contribute to the onset of charley horses. Pregnancy, a lack of calcium or potassium, and improper stretching are frequently listed as catalysts.

Can they be avoided? There’s not a sure-fire method for permanently getting rid of charley horses, but by staying hydrated, stretching before and after exercise, and incorporating good sources of calcium and potassium into our diets, we can reduce the likelihood of getting them. To minimize the pain and length of a cramping episode, rub the muscle and lift the leg so that blood can flow beyond the affected area.

Pre-Sleep Body Jerks
Yet another thief of precious sleep time, body jerks—also called hypnic jerks—refer to the way our bodies sometimes “jerk” awake right before we’re about to fall asleep, usually accompanied by a panicked feeling of falling. There are different explanations given for why this happens, but the blame finger is usually directed at our brains, which sometimes get confused by our muscles easing into sleep and causes them to tense up, thinking that we’re falling. The misinterpretation could be a reaction to our brains not being ready for sleep, either due to stress, fatigue, or too much stimulation (exercise, caffeine consumption) before bed.

Can they be avoided? Since hypnic jerks have been linked to the sleep troublemakers listed above, avoiding them could lessen the prevalence of body jerks in our lives, but chances are we will experience them again at some point.

Eye Twitches
Eye twitches are very common and are usually caused by temporary faulty functioning of the part of the brain that controls muscle movement. They usually occur randomly and can be quite alarming—after all, are our eyes supposed to twitch like that? Most of the time, twitching eyes, though bothersome, are nothing to worry about, even though their technical name—blepharospasm—sounds kind of scary. With some people, it occurs after or during a bout of dry eye, and it can also be triggered by stress, lack of sleep, and eye strain.

Can they be avoided? To decrease twitching incidences, be mindful of sleep, stay calm, and regularly move your eyes away from the computer screen. However, we can sometimes inherit a higher likelihood of twitching, so they can’t always be avoided.

It seems like hiccups come at the worst possible times, like when I’m in a library or in the middle of a quiet office. Why do hiccups happen? Again, the culprit is routine body functions randomly misbehaving. The diaphragm helps the lungs get more air by contracting, but if something affects the diaphragm negatively (e.g. eating quickly), it contracts violently, causing us to breathe in quickly and make an annoying, loud sound.

Can they be avoided? By eliminating the actions that affect the diaphragm in this manner, such as eating or drinking too fast or too much, or eating something very hot, we can reduce our hiccup maladies. Everybody has a supposed foolproof method for getting rid of them (a spoonful of sugar, being scared, etc.), but the success of treatment depends on the person. Most suggested cures involve distracting the person from the hiccups or, in the case of sugar, hoping the sweet spoonful on the tongue will send a message to the diaphragm to halt contraction.

Stomach Growls
Loud, embarrassing stomach noises are another of those bodily functions that only occur when we really don’t want them to—and they’re not even limited to when we’re hungry! Borborygmi (its technical name) happens when our digestive system tries to digest food when there isn’t any food there. The sounds we hear are produced by stomach and intestinal juices mixing around without anything to work with. It can happen when we’re not even hungry because when the stomach is empty, messages are sent to your brain to signal the desire for food and restart the digestive process. Even if we ate just a couple of hours ago, our bodies want to make sure we know to replenish ourselves in the future.

Can they be avoided?
Other than constantly eating (which would probably cause a host of other digestion issues), the occasional stomach gurgles might just be a fact of life. Anything happening more frequently than that or any growls causing stomach pain should be checked out by a doctor.

Noisy Joints
Some of us purposefully pop our joints, and others can’t help but do it when we bend down or stretch. Either way, the odd sound can be caused by different things: air pockets being created and released by movement, arthritis, and tightened ligaments. Though the popping or cracking noises are a bit unnerving—and tend to make us feel older than we are—they usually aren’t cause for serious alarm.

Can they be avoided? There is no real way to avoid random gas bubbles between our joints popping every now and then, but one potential cause of them—too much strain on the joints—can be reduced by properly stretching and easing into exercise. Basically, don’t jump from walking to training for a marathon—let your body gradually make the transition to higher-intensity movements.

Ticklish Spots
Being ticklish can be annoying, especially when I’m getting a pedicure. I have to bite my lip to keep from laughing when they scrub the dead skin from my feet, yet the other patrons sit there calmly and actually enjoy the experience. Most people have certain sensitive spots, and their locations vary from person to person. Scientists postulate that this sensitivity is a defense mechanism to protect us from potentially harmful creatures like spiders crawling on us. Charles Darwin believed that there is a social link between giggling and tickling, that we laugh because we anticipate the sensitivity, but also because we trust the source of the tickles. In any event, it’s almost always a sure source of belly laughter.

Can they be avoided? Being ticklish can also be associated with anxiety—people who are more anxious or on-edge can have more extreme reactions to surprise tickle attacks because that’s how their bodies respond to potential threats. For example, if it was an actual bug crawling on the person, the uncontrollable laughs might be replaced with shrieks. Others remain unphased by tickling because they are better at keeping calm. If you want to avoid being ticklish, focus on staying cool.

Even with the suggested ways to avoid or decrease body oddities, sometimes there’s just no way around them. Stomachs will growl, joints will pop, and I’m sure there’s another charley horse in my future. As long as our bodies keep running smoothly the rest of the time, we can live through a few embarrassing or annoying kinks in the system here and there. And if your stomach talks really loudly like mine does, just feign ignorance … or blame the person next to you.

Image source: Laura Bell (cc)