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Spasticity

Spasticity is stiff or rigid muscles. It may also be called unusual tightness or increased muscle tone. Reflexes (for example, a knee-jerk reflex) are stronger or exaggerated. The condition can interfere with walking, movement, or speech.

Alternative Names

Muscle stiffness; Hypertonia

Considerations

Spasticity is usually caused by damage to the part of the brain that is involved in movements under your control. It may also occur from damage to the nerves that go from the brain to the spinal cord.

Symptoms of spasticity include:

  • Abnormal posture
  • Carrying the shoulder, arm, wrist, and finger at an abnormal angle because of muscle tightness
  • Exaggerated deep tendon reflexes (the knee-jerk or other reflexes)
  • Repetitive jerky motions (clonus), especially when you are touched or moved
  • Scissoring (crossing of the legs as the tips of scissors would close)

Spasticity may also affect speech. Severe, long-term spasticity may lead to contracture of muscles. This can reduce range of motion or leave the joints bent.

Common Causes

This list does not include all conditions that can cause spasticity.

Home Care

Exercise, including muscle stretching, can help make your symptoms less severe. Home-based physical therapy is also helpful.

Call your health care provider if

Contact your health care provider if:

  • The spasticity gets worse
  • You notice deformity of the affected areas

What to expect at your health care provider's office

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your symptoms, including:

  • When was it first noticed?
  • How long has it lasted?
  • Is it always present?
  • How severe is it?
  • What muscles are affected?
  • What makes it better?
  • What makes it worse?
  • What other symptoms are present?

Treatment

After determining the cause of your spasticity, the doctor may refer you to a physical therapist. Physical therapy involves different exercises, including muscle stretching and strengthening exercises. Physical therapy exercises can be taught to parents who can then help their child do them at home.

Other treatments may include:

  • Medicines may be prescribed to treat spasticity. These need to be taken as instructed.
  • Botulinum toxin can be injected into the spastic muscles.
  • In rare cases, a pump may be inserted into the spinal fluid to directly deliver medicine to the nervous system.
  • Sometimes surgery is needed to release the tendon or to cut the nerve-muscle pathway.

References

Dobkin BH. Principles and practices of neurological rehabilitation. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 48.

Griggs R, Jozefowicz R, Aminoff M. Approach to the patient with neurologic disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 403.

Updated: 2/23/2013

David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.


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