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What causes slow movements? 12 possible conditions


Dystonia is the term used to describe involuntary muscle contractions that cause slow and repetitive movements. The head and neck area, the trunk of the body, and the extremities are the parts of the body that are most often affected, according to the UCLA Health System (UCLA Health System, 2009).

These movements can:

  • be repetitive
  • cause twisting motions in one or more parts of the body
  • cause a person to adopt abnormal postures

While this problem can be relatively mild, it may also be severe enough to affect overall quality of life.

Types of Dystonia

According to the Mayo Clinic, instances of dystonia are often placed into one of the following three categories: focal, generalized, and segmental (Mayo Clinic, 2012).


This is the most common type. It affects just one part of the body.


This type affects the majority of or the entire body.


This type affects more than one area of the body in the same proximity.

What Causes Dystonia?

The exact cause is unknown. However, doctors believe that certain medical conditions, genetics, or damage to the brain may be linked to this condition.

Conditions Linked

Certain medical conditions that affect brain and nerve function are closely associated with dystonia. They include:

  • encephalitis (inflammation or swelling in the brain)
  • cerebral palsy
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Wilson’s disease
  • tuberculosis
  • brain injury
  • stroke
  • brain tumor
  • brain injury during birth
  • carbon monoxide poisoning
  • heavy metal poisoning

Other Causes

Other factors known or believed to lead to uncontrolled muscle movement are:

  • side effects of or reactions to certain anti-psychotic medications
  • insufficient oxygenation of tissues and organs
  • inherited genes and/or genetic changes
  • disrupted communication between nerve cells in the brain

How Is Dystonia Diagnosed?

In many cases, dystonia is an ongoing symptom that may remain stable over time. However, the UCLA Health System recommends making an appointment to see your doctor in the following situations:

  • there is no clear explanation for the dystonia
  • your symptoms become worse over time
  • you are experiencing other symptoms in addition to dystonia (UCLA Health System, 2009)

Before Your Doctor’s Visit

It may be helpful to take a few notes about the symptoms you are experiencing. Include when the uncontrolled movements began, if they are constant, and if contractions are worse at certain times. For example, symptoms may flare up only after strenuous exercise.

You should also find out whether there is a history of dystonia in your family if this is something you don’t know.

During Your Doctor’s Visit

Your doctor will most likely take a thorough health history and perform a detailed physical exam. He or she will focus on muscle and nerve function. He or she will note:

  • medication history
  • recent illnesses
  • past and recent or injuries
  • recent stressful events

Your doctor may decide you should see a neurologist to diagnose the underlying cause of your condition. Tests that may be used to form a diagnosis include:

  • blood or urine tests, to determine if toxins are present
  • computed tomography (CT) scan, to view detailed structure of brain
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to view physical changes in the brain
  • electromyogram (EMG), to measure electrical activity in the muscles
  • electro encephalogram (EEG), to record electrical activity in the brain
  • spinal tap, to test a sample of cerebrospinal fluid
  • genetic studies

How Is Dystonia Treated?

There is no cure for dystonia. However, certain medications can help manage your symptoms.

Treatment Options

Botulinum Toxin Type A (Botox) Injections

Botox injections delivered to targeted muscle groups can help ease or eliminate muscle contractions. This type of treatment requires injections every three months. Side effects include fatigue, dry mouth, and changes in voice.

Oral Medications

Medications that affect the neurotransmitter dopamine may also improve symptoms. Dopamine controls the brain’s pleasure centers and regulates movement.

Physical Therapy

Massage, heat treatment, and low-impact exercises may help manage symptoms.

Alternative Treatments

Research on the topic is limited. However, some people have found relief by practicing certain alternative therapies, such as:

  • acupuncture: an ancient practice that inserts small, thin needles into various points on the body for pain relief
  • yoga: exercise that combines gentle stretching movements with deep breathing and meditation
  • biofeedback: electrical sensors monitor body functions and help identify ways to control muscle tension and blood pressure

Are There Any Complications Related to Dystonia?

Severe dystonia can cause a number of potential complications, such as:

  • physical deformities, which may become permanent
  • varying levels of physical disability
  • abnormal positioning of the head
  • problems swallowing
  • difficulty with speech
  • issues with jaw movement
  • pain
  • fatigue

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


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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Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain tissue. It's most often caused by viral infections. In some cases, bacterial infections can cause encephalitis.

Read more »



Hepatic encephalopathy is a decline in brain function that occurs as a result of severe liver disease. This causes a buildup of toxins in the bloodstream.

Read more »


Stroke Overview

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.

Read more »


Brain Aneurysm

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

An aneurysm in the brain is a weak area in an artery in the brain that bulges out and fills with blood. It can be unpredictable and life-threatening, and can cause extremely serious conditions.

Read more »


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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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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Alcoholic Ketoacidosis

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

Cells need glucose (sugar) and insulin to function properly. Glucose comes from the food you eat, and the pancreas produces insulin. When you drink alcohol, your pancreas may stop producing insulin for a short time...

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Addison’s Disease

Addison's disease occurs when the adrenal cortex is damaged and the adrenal glands don't produce enough of the steroid hormones cortisol and aldosterone.

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Addisonian Crisis (Acute Adrenal Crisis)

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

People with Addison's disease don't make enough cortisol or aldosterone. Addisonian crisis is a potentially life-threatening condition indicated by nausea, abdominal pain, fever, and chills.

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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."

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Cocaine and related disorders

Cocaine is extracted from the coca plant, which grows in Central and South America. It is processed into many forms for use as an illegal drug of abuse.

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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.