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Spasticity - Topic Overview

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 normally.

What causes spasticity?

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?

Common symptoms include:

If spasticity isn't treated, the muscles may freeze in an abnormal position. This can be very painful.

How is it treated?

The main treatments are physical therapy and medicines that help reduce muscle spasms. Surgery may be an option in severe cases.

Physical therapy

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.

Medicines

Muscle relaxants (antispasmodics) are used to treat spasticity. They include baclofen (such as Gablofen) and tizanidine (Zanaflex). These medicines relax tight muscles and stop muscle spasms. But they may cause sleepiness, muscle weakness, and nausea.

Baclofen is the medicine most 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.

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