Involuntary movements, such as tremors or tics, may be the result of issues with the nerves or muscles. Seek medical attention if you have ongoing involuntary movements and you’re not sure why.
An involuntary movement occurs when you move your body in an uncontrollable and unintended way. These movements can be anything from quick, jerking tics to longer tremors and seizures.
You can experience these movements in almost any part of the body, including:
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 in the affected muscle. The main types of involuntary movements include the following:
Tardive dyskinesia (TD)
Tardive dyskinesia (TD) is a neurological condition. It originates in the brain and occurs with the use of neuroleptic drugs. Doctors prescribe these drugs to treat psychiatric disorders.
People with TD often exhibit uncontrollable repetitive facial movements that can include:
- rapid blinking of the eyes
- protruding tongue
- smacking of the lips
- puckering of the lips
- pursing of the lips
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Tremors are rhythmic movements of a body part. They’re due to sporadic muscle contractions.
According to the Stanford School of Medicine, most people experience tremors in response to factors such as:
- low blood sugar
- alcohol withdrawal
However, tremors may also occur with more serious underlying conditions, such as:
Myoclonus is characterized by quick, shock-like, jerking movements. They may occur naturally:
- during sleep
- at moments when you’re startled
However, they can also be due to serious underlying health conditions, such as:
Tics are sudden, repetitive movements. They’re 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 most often occur with Tourette syndrome. The motor tics that occur as a result of this disorder may disappear for short periods of time. If you’re living with Tourette syndrome, you 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 due to:
- 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.
There are several potential causes for involuntary movements. In general, involuntary movement suggests damage to nerves or areas of your brain that affect motor coordination. However, a variety of underlying conditions can produce involuntary movement.
In children, some of the most common causes of involuntary movements are:
- hypoxia, or insufficient oxygen at the time of birth
- kernicterus, which is caused by an excess pigment produced by the liver called bilirubin
- cerebral palsy, which is a neurological disorder that affects the body’s movement and muscle function
Kernicterus is now rarely seen in the United States due to routine bilirubin screening of all newborns.
In adults, some of the most common causes of involuntary movements include:
- drug use
- use of neuroleptic medications prescribed for psychiatric disorders over a long period
- brain injury
- degenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease
- seizure disorders
- untreated syphilis
- thyroid diseases
- genetic disorders, including Huntington’s disease and Wilson’s disease
Make an appointment with your doctor if you or your child are experiencing persistent, uncontrollable body movements and you’re unsure of the cause. If you don’t already have a doctor, the Healthline FindCare tool can help you find a physician in your area.
Your appointment will most likely begin with a comprehensive medical interview. Your doctor will likely review your personal and family medical history, including any medications you’ve been taking or have taken in the past.
Other questions may include:
- When and how did the movements start?
- What body parts are being affected?
- What seems to make the movements worse or better?
- Does stress affect these movements?
- How often are the movements taking place?
- Are the movements getting worse over time?
It’s important to mention any other symptoms you may have along with these uncontrollable movements. Other symptoms and your responses to your doctor’s questions are very helpful in deciding the best course of treatment.
Depending on the suspected cause, your doctor could order one or more medical tests. These may include a variety of blood tests, such as:
- electrolyte studies
- thyroid function tests to rule out thyroid dysfunction
- a serum copper or serum ceruloplasmin test to rule out Wilson’s disease
- syphilis serology to rule out neurosyphilis
- connective tissue disease screening tests to rule out systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and other related diseases
- a serum calcium test
- red blood cell count (RBC)
Your doctor could also request:
- a urine test to rule out toxins
- a spinal tap for spinal fluid analysis
- an MRI or CT scan of the brain to look for structural abnormalities
- an electroencephalogram (EEG)
Psychopharmacology testing can also be helpful for diagnostic testing. However, this depends on whether you’re taking certain drugs or substances.
For instance, TD is a side effect of using neuroleptics over a certain period. Whether you have TD or another condition, the effects of any medication need to be examined during testing. This will help your doctor make an effective diagnosis.
Your 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 to a minimum.
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:
You may find support and self-help groups helpful if you have uncontrollable movements. Ask your doctor for assistance in finding and joining these types of groups.