What causes muscle spasticity? 27 possible conditions

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What Is Spasticity?

When your muscles contract, become stiff, or spasm involuntarily, it is called spasticity. Spasticity can make it difficult to walk, move, or talk. It can be uncomfortable and painful at times.

Spasticity occurs when the nerve impulses that control muscle movement are interrupted or damaged. A variety of conditions can cause this, including spinal cord injury, brain injury, and diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and multiple sclerosis (MS).

According to the National MS Society, spasticity has some benefit for people with very weak legs. The rigidity from spasticity can help them to stand or walk, (NMSS, 2012). For these people, the goal of treatment should be to relieve pain while maintaining the rigidity needed to function.

Prolonged spasticity can lead to frozen joints, pressure sores, and an inability to function normally. Make an appointment with your doctor if you have spasticity with an unknown cause.

Stretching exercises can help relieve spasticity. Your doctor may recommend physical therapy or massage. Prescription medications for spasticity include muscle relaxants, sedatives, and nerve blockers. Surgery is used in some cases.

Symptoms of Spasticity

Episodes of spasticity can range from very mild to debilitating and painful. Signs of spasticity include:

  • muscle tightness
  • joint stiffness
  • involuntary jerky movements
  • exaggeration of reflexes
  • unusual posture
  • abnormal positioning of fingers, wrists, arms, or shoulders
  • muscle spasms
  • involuntary crossing of the legs (this is called "scissoring" because the legs cross like the tip of a pair of scissors)
  • difficulty controlling the muscles used to speak
  • muscle contraction that limits your range of motion or prevents your joints from extending all the way
  • pain in the affected muscles and joints
  • back pain
  • difficulty moving

Spasticity can be triggered when you change position or move suddenly. Other spasm triggers include high humidity, extreme heat, extreme cold, infection, and clothing that is too tight. Your ability to perform normal tasks can be affected if spasms become too frequent.

Causes of Spasticity

The main cause of spasticity is damage to the nerve pathways that control the movement of muscles. This can be a symptom of a variety of conditions and diseases, including:

  • brain injury
  • spinal cord injury
  • stroke
  • cerebral palsy
  • multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease)
  • hereditary spastic paraplegias
  • adrenoleukodystrophy
  • phenylketonuria
  • Krabbe disease

Treating Spasticity

If spasticity is not properly managed, it can result in frozen joints and pressure sores on your skin. Prolonged episodes of spasticity can lead to the inability to move your ankles, knees, hips, elbows, and shoulders. This can affect your ability to move, walk, and function normally.

When to Seek Treatment

Contact your physician if:

  • you are experiencing spasticity for the first time and do not know the cause
  • your spasticity is getting more severe or is happening more frequently
  • your spasticity has changed considerably
  • you have a frozen joint
  • you have pressure sores or red skin
  • your level of discomfort or pain is increasing
  • you are finding it difficult to perform everyday tasks

Treatment will be based on the frequency and level of your spasticity and the underlying condition that is causing it. Your doctor may suggest physical therapy or exercises you can do at home. In some cases, a cast or splint may be used to prevent your muscles from becoming too tight.

Medication

Many medications are used to treat spasticity, including:

  • botulinum toxin (injected directly into spastic muscles)
  • baclofen (muscle relaxant)
  • diazepam (sedative)
  • phenol (nerve blocker)
  • tizanidine (calms spasms and relaxes tight muscles)

Some of these medications can cause uncomfortable side effects such as fatigue, confusion, and nausea. Do not stop taking your medication on your own if you experience the side effects. Consult with your doctor.

Surgery may be recommended for tendon release or to sever the nerve-muscle pathway when medications and physical therapy don’t improve symptoms. Remain under a doctor’s care and receive regular monitoring for spasticity.

At-Home Care

  • A physical therapist or physician can teach you the best stretching exercises for spasticity and overall health. You may need someone to help with your exercises.
  • Avoid extremely hot or cold temperatures.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing and avoid restrictive garments.
  • Avoid fatigue by getting plenty of sleep.
  • Be sure to change your position often to avoid getting pressure sores if you use a wheelchair or stay in bed for long periods.

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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

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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3

Polio

Poliomyelitis, or polio, is a highly contagious disease that is caused by a virus that attacks the body's nervous system. It is most likely to be contracted by children under five years old.

Read more »

4

Hydrocephalus

Hydrocephalus is a condition that occurs when fluid builds up in the skull and causes the brain to swell. The name literally means "water on the brain." Brain damage can occur as a result of the fluid buildup. This ca...

Read more »

5

Hypoparathyroidism

Hypoparathyroidism occurs when the parathyroid glands in the neck don't produce enough hormone (PTH). Too little PTH causes low calcium and high phosphorus levels in the body. Many of its symptoms concern low calciu...

Read more »

6

Epilepsy Overview

Epilepsy is a neurological condition caused by malfunctioning brain cells that result in seizures. There is no cure for this disorder but episodes can become less frequent.

Read more »

7

Slipped (Herniated) Disk

The vertebrae in your spine are cushioned by disks composed of a hard outer ring with a gelatinous material inside. Injury or weakness can cause the inner portion of the disk to break through the outer portion.

Read more »

8

Osteomalacia

Osteomalacia is a weakening of the bones due to problems with bone formation or the bone building process. It is not the same as osteoporosis, which is a weakening of living bone that has already been formed and i...

Read more »

9

Tetanus

Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection that affects the nervous system and causes muscles to tighten. Commonly called lockjaw, it primarily causes muscle contractions in the jaw and neck. It can be life-threatening.

Read more »

10

Guillain-Barre Syndrome

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

Guillain-Barre syndrome is a rare but serious autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks healthy nerve cells of the peripheral nervous system. This leads to weakness, numbness, and tingling, and ca...

Read more »

11

Low Blood Sodium (Hyponatremia)

Low blood sodium is also known as hyponatremia . Sodium is an electrolyte. It helps maintain the balance of water in and around your cells. Sodium is important for proper muscle and nerve function. It also keeps you...

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12

Seizures

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

Seizures are changes in the brain's electrical activity. This can cause dramatic, noticeable symptoms or even no symptoms at all. The symptoms of a severe seizure are often widely recognized, including violent shakin...

Read more »

13

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...

Read more »

14

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...

Read more »

15

Rabies

Rabies-the word probably brings to mind an enraged animal frothing at the mouth. Unfortunately, an encounter with an infected animal can result in a painful, life-threatening condition and even death. According to th...

Read more »

16

ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease)

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is not contagious. It is a degenerative disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. A chronic disorder, it causes a loss of control of voluntary muscles. The nerves controllin...

Read more »

17

Huntington's Disease

Huntington's disease is a hereditary condition in which your brain's nerve cells gradually break down. This affects your physical movements, emotions, and cognitive abilities. There is no cure, but there are ways t...

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18

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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19

Partial Seizures

The human brain operates by conducting electrical signals through neurons (nerve cells). A seizure occurs when there is a surge in this electrical activity. This causes a host of physical symptoms such as muscl...

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20

Arterial Embolism

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

An arterial embolism is a blood clot that has travelled through your arteries and become stuck. This can block or restrict blood flow. Clots generally affect the arms, legs, or feet. An "embolism" is anything tha...

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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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