What is spasticity?
Spasticity is a condition in which muscles are tight or stiff. For example, your hand may stay clenched in a fist or your knee may be hard to bend. At times the muscles may jerk or spasm uncontrollably. It can interfere with your ability to move, speak, or walk.
What causes it?
Spasticity usually occurs because of damage to the part of the brain or spinal cord that controls voluntary movement. It's often the result of a spinal cord injury, a stroke, or a disease such as multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease).
What are the symptoms?
Spasticity has many common symptoms. They include increased muscle tone (which makes the muscles stiff or tight), overactive reflexes, muscle spasms, stiff joints, and a series of repeated quick muscle contractions (clonus). If spasticity isn't treated, the muscles may freeze in an abnormal position. This can be very painful.
How is spasticity treated?
The main treatments for spasticity are physical therapy and medicines that help reduce muscle spasms. Surgery may be an option in severe cases.
Exercise and stretching are important treatments for spasticity. Therapists will work with you to increase your range of motion and keep your muscles from getting stiff. You will need to move the affected limb over and over again on a regular basis. You may do this on your own or with the help of a therapist, machine, or caregiver.
In some cases, cold packs and electrical stimulation are used on muscles. Casts or splints may be used to stretch the muscles and keep them from contracting.
Muscle relaxants (antispasmodics) are used to treat spasticity. These medicines relax tight muscles and stop muscle spasms. But they may cause sleepiness, muscle weakness, and nausea.
Baclofen is a muscle relaxant that is often prescribed for spasticity. You can take it as a pill, or a surgeon can implant a small pump under your skin that delivers the medicine directly to your spinal cord. The advantage of the pump is that you will use less medicine. This reduces the side effects that are a problem with baclofen pills. Your doctor can tell you if the pump is right for you.
Other types of medicines may be used. In many cases, taking small doses of a combination of medicines works better and causes fewer side effects than taking a larger dose of a single medicine.
Botulinum toxin (such as Botox) injections given directly into the muscle can block messages that cause the muscle to spasm. The effect of one injection lasts about 3 to 4 months.
Some people with severe spasticity may need surgery. For example, surgery may be done to:
- Release the biceps or triceps tendon in the arm.
- Lengthen the hamstring or Achilles tendon in a person who has problems walking.
- Release the toe flexor muscles.
Current as of: May 1, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board: All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.