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Uncontrollable or Involuntary Movements

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 the neck, face, and limbs.

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.

What Are the Types of Uncontrollable Movement?

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:

  • grimacing
  • rapid blinking of the eyes
  • protruding tongue
  • smacking of the lips
  • puckering of the lips
  • pursing of the lips

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), tetrabenazine is the only currently approved drug for this condition, but other medications have also shown some efficacy. You should talk with your doctor to determine which treatment is right for you.


Tremors are rhythmic movements of a particular 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, and exhaustion. However, tremors may also occur with more serious underlying conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.


Myoclonus is characterized by quick, shock-like, jerking movements. They may occur naturally during sleep or at moments when you’re startled. However, they can also be due to serious underlying health conditions, such as epilepsy or Alzheimer’s disease.


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’s syndrome. The motor tics that occur as a result of this disorder may disappear for short periods of time. The affected individual 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 trauma or the 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.

What Causes Uncontrollable Movement?

There are several potential causes for involuntary movements. In general, involuntary movement suggests damage to nerves or areas of the brain that affect motor coordination. However, a variety of underlying conditions can produce involuntary movement.

In Children

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, or 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

In adults, some of the most common causes of involuntary movements include:

  • drug use
  • the use of neuroleptic medications that are prescribed for psychiatric disorders over a long period
  • tumors
  • brain injury
  • strokes
  • degenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease
  • seizure disorders
  • untreated syphilis
  • thyroid diseases
  • genetic disorders, including Huntington’s disease and Wilson’s disease

How Is the Cause of Uncontrollable Movement Diagnosed?

Make an appointment with your doctor if you or your child are experiencing persistent, uncontrollable body movements and you’re unsure of the cause.

Your appointment will most likely begin with a comprehensive medical interview. This will go over 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.

Diagnostic Tests

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 and other related diseases
  • a serum calcium test
  • red blood cell counts

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

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.

What Are the Treatment Options for Uncontrollable Movement?

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:

  • swimming
  • stretching
  • balancing exercises
  • walking

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.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Krista O'Connell
Medically reviewed on: Mar 10, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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