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When your muscles contract, become stiff, or spasm involuntarily, it’s called spasticity. Spasticity can make it difficult to walk, move, or talk. It can be uncomfortable and painful at times.

Spasticity occurs when the nerve impulses that control muscle movement are interrupted or damaged. A variety of conditions can cause this, including:

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, spasticity can have some benefit for people with very weak legs. The rigidity from spasticity can help them to stand or walk. For these people, the goal of treatment should be to relieve pain while maintaining the rigidity needed to function.

Prolonged spasticity can lead to:

  • frozen joints
  • pressure sores
  • an inability to function normally

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have spasticity with an unknown cause.

Stretching exercises can help relieve spasticity. Your doctor may recommend physical therapy or massage. Prescription medications for the condition include muscle relaxants, sedatives, and nerve blockers. Surgery is used in some cases.

Symptoms of spasticity

Episodes of spasticity can range from very mild to debilitating and painful. Signs and symptoms of spasticity include:

  • muscle tightness
  • joint stiffness
  • involuntary jerky movements
  • exaggeration of reflexes
  • unusual posture
  • abnormal positioning of fingers, wrists, arms, or shoulders
  • muscle spasms
  • involuntary crossing of the legs, called "scissoring" because the legs cross like the tip of a pair of scissors
  • difficulty controlling the muscles used to speak
  • muscle contraction that limits your range of motion or prevents your joints from extending all the way
  • pain in the affected muscles and joints
  • back pain
  • difficulty moving

Spasticity can be triggered when you change position or move suddenly. Other spasm triggers include:

  • fatigue
  • stress
  • high humidity
  • extreme heat
  • extreme cold
  • infection
  • clothing that is too tight

Your ability to perform normal tasks can be affected if spasms become too frequent.

Causes of spasticity

The main cause of spasticity is damage to the nerve pathways that control the movement of muscles. This can be a symptom of a variety of conditions and diseases, including:

Treating spasticity

If spasticity is not properly managed, it can result in frozen joints and pressure sores on your skin. Prolonged episodes of it can lead to the inability to move your:

  • ankles
  • knees
  • hips
  • elbows
  • shoulders
  • wrists

This can affect your ability to move, walk, and function in a normal capacity.

When to seek treatment

Treatment will be based on the frequency and level of your spasticity, and the underlying condition that is causing it. Contact your doctor if:

  • you are experiencing spasticity for the first time and do not know the cause
  • your spasticity is getting more severe or is happening more frequently
  • your spasticity has changed considerably
  • you have a frozen joint
  • you have pressure sores or red skin
  • your level of discomfort or pain is increasing
  • you are finding it difficult to perform everyday tasks

Your doctor may suggest physical therapy or exercises you can do at home. In some cases, a cast or splint may be used to prevent your muscles from becoming too tight.

Medication for spasticity

Many medications are used to treat spasticity, including:

  • botulinum toxin: (injected directly into spastic muscles)
  • baclofen: (muscle relaxant)
  • diazepam: (sedative)
  • phenol: (nerve blocker)
  • tizanidine: (calms spasms and relaxes tight muscles)

Some of these drugs can cause uncomfortable side effects such as:

  • fatigue
  • confusion
  • nausea

If you experience side effects, don’t stop taking medications on your own. Consult with your doctor.

Surgery may be recommended for tendon release or to sever the nerve-muscle pathway when medications and physical therapy don’t improve symptoms. Remain under a doctor’s care and receive regular monitoring for spasticity.

At-home care

Your doctor or physical therapist will likely recommend a variety of home-care treatments to help ease some of the symptoms of spasticity. These include:

  • Stretching exercises for spasticity and overall health; you may need someone to help with your exercises.
  • Avoiding extremely hot or cold temperatures.
  • Wearing loose-fitting clothing and avoid restrictive garments or braces.
  • Getting plenty of sleep.
  • Changing your position often, at least every two hours. This helps to avoid developing pressure sores if you use a wheelchair or stay in bed for long periods.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Ann Pietrangelo
Medically reviewed on: Oct 21, 2016: Judith Marcin, MD

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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