What causes involuntary movements? 14 possible conditions
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.
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.
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:
- 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 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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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)
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
- brain injury
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
- Athetosis. (n.d.). Queensland Cerebral Palsy Registrar. Retrieved July 25, 2012, from http://www.qcpr.org.au/file_folder/athetosis_ataxia.pdf
- Calcium – blood test. (2011, November 17). National Institutes of Health. Retrieved September 21, 2012, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003477.htm
- Dugdale III, D.C., Campellone, J.V., & Zieve, D. (2011, February 5). Movement – uncontrollable. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved July 11, 2012, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003201.htm
- Involuntary movements. (n.d.). Stanford School of Medicine. Retrieved July 11, 2012, from http://stanfordmedicine25.stanford.edu/the25/im.html
- Jacewicz, M. (2007, October). Physical Examination: Diagnosis of Brain, Spinal Cord, and Nerve Disorders. Merck Manual Home Edition. Retrieved September 21, 2012, from http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/brain_spinal_cord_and_nerve_disorders/diagnosis_of_brain_spinal_cord_and_nerve_disorders/physical_examination.html
- Jasmin, L., & Zieve, D. (2012, February 16). EEG. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved July 30, 2012, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003931.htm
- Movement Disorders. (n.d.). American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Retrieved September 21, 2012, from http://www.aans.org/Patient%20Information/Conditions%20and%20Treatments/Movement%20Disorders.aspx
- NINDS cerebral palsy information page. (2011, October 4). National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Retrieved July 30, 2012, from http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/cerebral_palsy/cerebral_palsy.htm
- NINDS tardive dyskinesia information page. (2011, October 4). National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Retrieved July 11, 2012, from http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/tardive/tardive.htm
- Parkinson’s disease. (2012, May 11). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 30, 2012, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/parkinsons-disease/DS00295
- Seizure disorders. (2010, March 29). University of Maryland Medical Center. Retrieved September 21, 2012, from http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/seizure-disorders-000148.htm
- Tardive dyskinesia. (2012, May 21). National Institutes of Health. Retrieved September 21, 2012, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000685.htm
- Tourette syndrome. (2010, May 8). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 25, 2012, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/tourette-syndrome/DS00541/DSECTION=symptoms
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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