What causes involuntary movements? 14 possible conditions

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What Is Uncontrollable Movement?

Uncontrollable movement refers to involuntary motions in an individual. They may also be referred to as involuntary body movements. You can experience these movements in almost any part of the body, including the neck, face, and limbs.

There are a number of types of uncontrollable movements and causes. Uncontrollable movements in one or more areas of the body may quickly subside in some cases. In others, these movements are an ongoing problem, and may worsen over time.

Types of Uncontrollable Movement

There are several types of involuntary movements. Nerve damage, for instance, often produces small muscle twitches of the affected muscle. A few of the main types are described in the sections below.

Tardive Dyskinesia

This syndrome is neurological in nature, meaning that it is a problem that originates in the brain. It is connected to the use of neuroleptic drugs, which are typically prescribed for treating psychiatric disorders.

People with tardive dyskinesia often exhibit one or more of the following involuntary movements:

  • grimacing
  • rapid blinking of the eyes
  • protruding tongue
  • smacking, puckering, or pursing of the lips

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, tetrabenazine is the only currently approved form of drug treatment for this syndrome (NINDS, 2011).

Tremors

Tremors are rhythmic movements of a particular body part. They are caused by sporadic muscle contractions.

According to the Stanford School of Medicine, most people can experience tremors in response to such factors as low blood sugar, alcohol withdrawal, and exhaustion (Stanford School of Medicine). However, tremors may also be related to more serious underlying conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

Myoclonus

These are shock-like, jerking movements. They may occur naturally during sleep, or at moments when a person is startled. However, they can also be due to serious underlying health conditions, such as epilepsy or Alzheimer’s.

Tics

Tics are sudden, repetitive movements. They are classified as simple or complex, depending on whether they involve a smaller or larger number of muscle groups. Excessively shrugging the shoulders or flexing a finger is an example of a simple tic. Repetitively hopping and flapping one’s arms is an example of a complex tic.

In young people, tics are most often associated with Tourette syndrome. The motor tics that occur as a result of this disorder may disappear for short periods of time. The affected individual may also be able to stifle them to some extent.

In adults, tics may occur as a symptom of Parkinson’s disease. Adult-onset tics may also be caused by trauma or the use of certain drugs, such as methamphetamines.

Athetosis

This refers to slow, writhing movements. According to the Stanford School of Medicine, this type of involuntary movement most often affects the hands and arms (Stanford School of Medicine).

Causes of Uncontrollable Movement

There are several potential causes for involuntary movements. In general, involuntary movement suggests damage to nerves or areas of the brain that affect motor coordination. However, a variety of underlying conditions can produce involuntary movement. The sections below review several potential causes of uncontrollable movement in children and adults.

Children

In children, some of the most common causes of involuntary movements are:

  • hypoxia (insufficient oxygen at the time of birth)
  • kernicterus (caused by an excess of bilirubin, which is a pigment produced by the liver)
  • cerebral palsy (neurological disorders that affect the body’s movement and muscle function)

Adults

In adults, some of the most common causes of involuntary movements include:

  • drug use (amphetamines, methylphenidate, cocaine)
  • use of neuroleptic medications (drugs prescribed for psychiatric disorders) over a long period of time
  • tumors
  • brain injury
  • stroke
  • degenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease
  • seizure disorders
  • untreated syphilis
  • thyroid disease

Involuntary movements may also be due to genetic disorders, including Huntington’s disease and Wilson’s disease.

Testing and Diagnosis for Uncontrollable Movement

Make an appointment with a doctor if you or your child are experiencing persistent, uncontrollable body movements and are unsure of what is causing them.

Your appointment will most likely begin with a comprehensive medical interview. This will go over personal and family medical history, including any medications you have been taking or have taken in the past.

Other questions may include:

  • When and how did the movements start?
  • What parts of the body are being affected (legs, arms, etc.)?
  • What seems to make the movements worse and/or better?
  • Does stress have any bearing on these movements?
  • How often are the movements taking place?
  • Are the movements getting worse over time?

It is important to mention any other symptoms you may be experiencing alongside these uncontrollable movements. Other symptoms and your responses to your doctor’s questions are very helpful in deciding what the best course of treatment will be.

Diagnostic Tests

Depending on what cause your doctor suspects, he or she could order one or more medical tests, including:

  • blood tests
  • thyroid function tests (to rule out thyroid dysfunction)
  • serum copper or serum ceruloplasmin (to rule out Wilson’s disease)
  • syphilis serology (to rule out neurosyphilis)
  • connective tissue disease screening tests (to rule out systemic lupus erythematosus and other related diseases)
  • red blood cell counts (to exclude polycythemia rubra vera)
  • serum calcium level (tests calcium levels in the blood, which can be indicative of the presence of certain conditions)
  • urine test (to rule out toxins)
  • spinal tap (for spinal fluid analysis)
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scan of the brain (to look for structural abnormalities)
  • physiologic imaging studies (for instance, positron emission tomography (PET) scans) of patients who may have tardive dyskinesia
  • electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures the brain’s electrical activity

Psychopharmacology metrics and testing can also be used for diagnostic testing. However, this will depend on whether certain drugs or substances are being used by the patient. For instance, tardive dyskinesia is a side effect of using neuroleptics over a certain period. Whether you have tardive dyskinesia or another condition, the effects of any medications or drugs being used need to be examined during testing. This will help your doctor make an effective diagnosis.

Treatment and Outlook for Uncontrollable Movement

Outlook can vary, depending on the severity of this symptom. However, some medications can reduce the severity. For instance, one or more medications can help keep uncontrolled movements associated with seizure disorders under control.

Physical activity within your doctor’s guidelines can help enhance your coordination. It may also help slow muscle damage. Possible forms of physical activity include swimming, stretching, balancing exercises, and walking.

Support and self-help groups may help ease the emotional toll that this symptom can have on both the affected person and his or her family. Ask your doctor for assistance with finding and joining these types of groups.

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.

1

Parkinson's Disease

Parkinson's disease (PD) is a progressive neurological disorder. It first presents with problems of movement. Smooth and coordinated muscle movements of the body are made possible by a substance in the brain calle...

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2

Chorea

Chorea refers to brief, repetitive, jerky, uncontrolled movements caused by muscle contractions that occur as symptoms of several different disorders.

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3

Epilepsy Overview

The types of epilepsy include Juvenile Myoclonic, Benign Rolandic, Reflex, West Syndrome, Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, Landau-Kleffner and Rasmussen's Encephalitis Epilepsy.

Read more »

4

Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is a disorder of muscle movement and coordination caused by an injury to a child's brain that occurs before birth or during infancy. It affects the part of the brain that controls body movement. Othe...

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5

Stroke Overview

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A stroke (a "brain attack") is a medical emergency in which part of the brain is deprived of oxygen. This occurs when an artery that supplies oxygenated blood to the brain becomes damaged and brain cells begin to die.

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6

Spinal Cord Injury

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A spinal cord injury, or damage to the spinal cord, is an extremely serious type of physical trauma. It will likely have a lasting and significant impact on most aspects of daily life. According to the Nationa...

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7

Partial Seizures

A surge in neuron activity causes seizure, resulting in a host of physical symptoms such as muscle contractions, visual disturbances, and blackouts. Partial (focal) seizures affect just one area of the brain.

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8

Encephalitis

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain tissue usually caused by viral infection. Mild symptoms include fever, headache, and vomiting. Seizure, unconsciousness, and high fever are severe signs.

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9

Intracerebral Hemorrhage

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

An intracerebral hemorrhage (ICH) occurs when blood suddenly bursts into brain tissue, causing damage to the brain, which may present symptoms similar to that of a stroke. Lobar intracerebral hemorrhages occur in th...

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10

Huntington's Disease

Huntington's disease is a hereditary condition in which the brain's nerve cells gradually break down. This affects physical movements, emotions, and cognitive abilities. There is no cure, but there are ways to cope wit...

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11

Multiple Sclerosis Overview

Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 individuals in the United States and over two million worldwide. Although it is considered a relatively rare disease, MS is of particular interest recentl...

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12

Calcium Deficiency Disease (Hypocalcemia)

Calcium is a vital mineral that our body uses to stabilize blood pressure and build strong bones and teeth. Everyone should consume the recommended amount of calcium per day through the food they eat or, i...

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13

Rheumatic Fever

Rheumatic fever is one of the complications associated with strep throat. The condition usually appears in children between the ages of 5 and 15, even though older children and adults have been known to contract th...

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14

Hyperthyroidism

The thyroid gland is a small butterfly-shaped gland located at the front of the neck below your Adam's apple. It produces tetraiodothyronine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), two hormones which control how your cells us...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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