There are numerous medical conditions that you likely wouldn’t be able to identify if they happened to you. Catching a cold is pretty obvious, as is digestive distress after a disagreeable meal. But something like tetany can throw people who aren’t feeling normal and sometimes their doctors for a loop. In general, tetany involves overly stimulated neuromuscular activity.

Tetany is a symptom. Like many symptoms, it can be brought on by a variety of conditions. This means that it’s sometimes difficult to find what’s causing this symptom. While there are effective treatments for the condition, preventing it often depends on pinpointing what caused it in the first place.

Overly stimulated nerves cause involuntary muscle cramps and contractions, most often in the hands and feet. But these spasms can extend throughout the body, and even into the larynx, or voice box, causing breathing problems.

Severe episodes can result in:

Tetany can be the result of an electrolyte imbalance. Most often, it’s a dramatically low calcium level, also known as hypocalcemia. Tetany can also be caused by magnesium deficiency or too little potassium. Having too much acid (acidosis) or too much alkali (alkalosis) in the body can also result in tetany. What brings on these imbalances is another matter altogether.

For instance, hypoparathyroidism is a condition in which the body doesn’t create enough parathyroid hormone. This can lead to dramatically lowered calcium levels, which can trigger tetany.

Sometimes kidney failure or problems with the pancreas can interfere with calcium levels in the body. In these cases, it’s organ failure that leads to tetany by hypocalcemia. Low blood protein, septic shock, and some blood transfusions can also adversely affect blood calcium levels.

Sometimes toxins can cause tetany. One example is the botulinum toxin found in spoiled foods or bacteria in soil that enter the body through cuts or injuries.

Ideally, your doctor will know what caused the tetany, enabling them to treat the condition at its source.

In the short term, treatment goals are to correct the imbalance. This might include supplementing with calcium or magnesium, for example. Injecting calcium directly into the bloodstream is the most common approach. However, taking calcium orally (along with vitamin D, for absorption) may be required to prevent it from reoccurring.

Once a doctor determines what was at the root of the tetany, they may consider more serious treatments. For instance, if tumors on the parathyroid are to blame, they can be surgically removed.

In some cases, such as kidney failure, ongoing treatment with calcium supplements may be required to treat the condition that led to the tetany.

As with most serious conditions, early detection and treatment make the biggest difference when it comes to your outlook regarding tetany. Treating the mineral imbalance early enough can prevent the onset of severe symptoms such as seizures and heart problems.

Taking a calcium supplement isn’t likely to do enough if you’re already experiencing tetany. Speaking to your doctor right away is the best course of action.