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What is Spasticity?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Spasticity is a disorder of the central nervous system which is characterized by overactive muscles. In a patient with spasticity, certain muscles continually contract, and they tighten up far more than they would normally. The condition can cause problems with speech, walking, and fine motor tasks, and it is associated with serious complications like the dislocation of limbs. For patients, spasticity can be frustrating, painful, and sometimes humiliating.

This condition is usually associated with another medical disorder such as multiple sclerosis, brain trauma, or cerebral palsy. A wide variety of muscle groups can be involved. In all cases, spasticity involves a confusion in the neurons which transmit information from the brain to the muscles; instead of firing normally, these neurons switch into hyperdrive, telling the muscles to tense up and keep tensing. During a spastic episode, the patient may be unable to relax, bend, or stretch, and he or she may be in significant pain.

On a daily basis, spasticity is managed with massage and a series of stretches which are designed to promote relaxation of the involved muscles. Yoga and other movement disciplines which promote flexibility may also be used in an attempt to keep the muscles as relaxed as possible. Medications may also be offered to help manage the spasticity, with drugs such as muscle relaxers being used to keep the patient's muscles from tightening up too much.

In some cases, surgical techniques may be utilized to cope with spasticity. Neurosurgery can target the specific areas of the brain involved, although this surgery is accompanied with some definite risks which should be considered. Patients with severe spasticity may be offered surgeries in which the connection between the brain and the muscles involved is terminated. Other forms of therapy may also be available, depending on what underlying condition is causing the spasticity.

A number of things appear to increase spasticity. Stimuli in particular seem to increase the severity and frequency of muscle contractions, and these stimuli can vary from skin infections which upset the balance of the body to emotionally difficult conversations. Exercise, exhaustion, and stress can all contribute to spasticity and muscle contractions, and sometimes stress about the possibility of spasticity can bring on a spastic attack. For example, a patient might be afraid of taking a walk with a friend for fear that a spastic episode will occur, and the stress over the walk may cause the patient's muscles to start contracting.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon941453 — On Mar 22, 2014

Please, please, please take medical grade cannabis. It will reduce spasticity 99 percent.

By lighth0se33 — On Sep 26, 2011

@wavy58 - My mother had a stroke, and her physical therapy has done wonders to reduce her spastic episodes. She also takes a helpful drug that doesn’t degrade the strength of her muscles.

Every time she visits her therapist, she goes through a range of exercises. She also has to do these exercises at home three times daily. These movements force her to use all her muscle groups.

The therapist also helps her with stretching. Her tightest muscles need to be stretched gently. The therapist also recommended that she move her body parts around to different positions throughout the day, because staying in one place too long can bring on an episode.

By wavy58 — On Sep 25, 2011

My grandmother suffered a stroke last year, and she had been dealing with spasticity ever since. Her doctor prescribed her some muscle relaxers, but I feel like there has to be something we can do to improve her situation. After all, it can’t be good for her muscles to keep drugging them into relaxation.

Has anyone here ever had any experience with stroke spasticity? I am hoping someone can tell me about some type of therapy or drug that will be effective at correcting the situation, rather than just sedating her tense muscles. This feels like it should be a temporary fix.

By kylee07drg — On Sep 25, 2011

I have a friend with multiple sclerosis, and he usually only has episodes of spasticity when he is very stressed out. He has already quit his job and gotten on disability, so that eliminated a major source of stress. He doesn’t have as many episodes as he did before.

He sometimes tenses up painfully when he thinks about the inevitable progression of his disease. He started going to a support group, where he could talk about these issues with other people who have them.

Talking about it with those who understand has further reduced his anxiety and the frequency of his spastic episodes. His new friends are helpful, because I can listen, but I can’t say I know how he feels.

By orangey03 — On Sep 24, 2011

My best friend in high school had spasticity. She had looked forward to the prom all her life, but she was scared to go once she found out about her condition.

She had experienced episodes at school before, and while most of the kids were sympathetic, a few made fun of her. She had an intense fear of embarrassment, and she could just envision herself on the dance floor with her muscles suddenly going haywire.

In spite of her fear, she really wanted to go, so we went dress shopping together. While she was in the dressing room, she had an episode. She said that once she saw herself in the mirror in a prom dress, the fear set in, and her muscles started tensing up. This one was painful, and she had to take a muscle relaxer while I drove her home.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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