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Spasticity

Condition: Spasticity refers to muscle tightness, stiffness, and cramping that can’t be controlled. Spastic muscles may also cause jerky movements, or spasms.

Background: Spasticity affects muscles, but is caused by damage to the nerves that control muscles. This nerve damage can result from stroke, multiple sclerosis (MS), spinal cord injury, or other types of brain damage.

Risk Factors: Some conditions, such as a traumatic spinal cord injury, are more likely to cause spasticity than other types, like stroke.  

History and Symptoms: After a spinal or brain injury, at first the muscles may be limp and weak, but then tighten up. When the tightness does not go away it can cause other problems with movement, posture, balance, and doing everyday tasks. Spasticity may also cause pain or sleep problems.

Physical Exam: Your physician will test how well you can move your arms and legs and whether certain movements make your muscles tighten up.      

Diagnostic Process: There are no blood tests for spasticity. Xrays or other types of imaging may be used to rule out broken bones or problems with circulation. A test called EMG (electromyography) can show if the problem is in the nerves or the muscles.

Rehab Management: Physical and occupational therapy (PT and OT) and can help relieve stiffness, keep the muscles as flexible as possible, and prevent other problems from developing. Speech therapy may be used for problems with speech or swallowing. Cold and heat, or being in a pool may also help. Ultrasound and electrical stimulation may also decrease spasticity. Medications may be used but can have side effects.   

Other Resources for Patients and Families: Family members can help patients with stretching and other exercises to increase flexibility. If patients need help moving about or getting up and down, family members can learn the best ways to help.    

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