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What Is Tetany?


There are numerous medical conditions that you likely wouldn’t be able to identify if they happened to you. Catching a cold is pretty obvious, as is digestive distress after a disagreeable meal. But things like tetany can throw patients (and sometimes their doctors) for a loop.

Tetany is a symptom, and, like many other symptoms, it can be brought on by a variety of conditions. This means that it’s sometimes difficult to find the cause. While there are effective treatments for the condition, preventing it often depends on pinpointing what caused it in the first place.

What Does Tetany Look Like?

Look Out For…
  • Involuntary cramps and contractions, usually in hands and feet.
  • Severe cases cause convulsions, vomiting, seizures, and heart dysfunction.
  • In general, tetany involves overly stimulated neuromuscular activity. These overly stimulated nerves cause involuntary muscle cramps and contractions, most often in the hands and feet. But these spasms can extend throughout the body, and even into the larynx, causing breathing problems.

    Severe episodes can result in vomiting, convulsions, and serious pain, as well as seizures and heart dysfunction.

    What Causes Tetany?

    Tetany can be the result of an electrolyte imbalance. Most often, it’s a dramatically low calcium level, known as hypocalcemia. But, it can also be caused by magnesium deficiency or too little potassium. Having too much acid (acidosis) or too much alkali (alkalosis) in the body can also result in tetany.

    What brings on these deficiencies is another matter altogether.

    Common Causes
  • low calcium or potassium levels
  • magnesium deficiency
  • pH imbalances in the body (too acidic or too alkaline)
  • For instance, hypoparathyroidism is a condition where the body doesn’t create enough parathyroid hormone. This can lead to dramatically lowered calcium levels, which can trigger tetany.

    Sometimes kidney failure or problems with the pancreas can interfere with calcium use in the body. In these cases, it’s organ failure that leads to tetany by hypocalcemia. Low blood protein, septic shock, and some blood transfusions can also adversely affect blood calcium levels.

    How Is Tetany Treated?

    Ideally, a patient’s doctor will know what caused the tetany, enabling them to treat the condition at its source. In the short term, treatment goals are to correct the imbalance, which might include supplementing with calcium or magnesium, for example. Injecting calcium directly into the bloodstream is the most common approach, though taking calcium orally (along with vitamin D, for absorption) may be required to prevent it from reoccurring.

    Once a doctor determines what was at the root of the tetany, they may consider more extreme treatments. For instance, if tumors on the parathyroid are to blame, they can be surgically removed.

    In some cases, like kidney failure, ongoing treatment with calcium supplements may become the patient’s new norm as they treat the condition that led to the tetany.

    The Takeaway

    As with most serious conditions, early detection and treatment make the biggest difference when it comes to your prognosis regarding tetany. If tetany is caught and the mineral imbalance is treated, it can be solved before it causes severe symptoms like seizures and heart problems.

    Taking a calcium supplement isn’t likely to do enough if you’re already experiencing tetany. Speaking to your doctor right away is the best course of action. 

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