How Spasticity Is Diagnosed

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on May 08, 2023
3 min read

Spasticity symptoms like stiff, rigid muscles generally aren’t hard for your doctor to miss. But it’s important to rule out anything else so they can tailor the right treatment plan for you. They’ll check the severity of your spasticity and which muscles are involved to try and figure out what’s causing it.

Your doctor will ask you about your medical history to learn more about other conditions or injuries you may have had. Spasticity can be the result of trauma or injury to the head, spine, or central nervous system disorder.

They’ll look closely at your:

Posture. They’ll check whether you lean to one side, hunch over, or favor a certain position.

Coordination. Your doctor may ask you to walk normally and in a straight line, placing one foot in front of the other, or touch your finger to the doctor’s finger and then your own nose, and repeat the movement quickly.

Strength. To measure this, your doctor will ask you to push or pull against resistance, walk on your heels or tiptoes, or rise from a chair.

Reflexes. Doctors test reflexes to determine whether all parts of this pathway are working. The reflexes they test most commonly are the knee jerk and reflexes at the elbow and ankle.

To see how tight certain muscles are, your doctor may stretch them to see how easily they move. They may also look at:

  • Arm and leg movements
  • Range of motion in your limbs
  • Ability to perform self-care activities
  • Your walking pattern

Your doctor may ask you questions like:

  • When did you first notice the spasticity?
  • How severe is it?
  • Do you notice it all the time?
  • Are there things that make it better or worse?
  • Do you have other symptoms?
  • Which muscles does it affect?

In some cases, you may need more testing to see what’s causing your spasticity. Imaging tests may show your doctor any brain damage that’s triggering the spasticity and where it is. 

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans show detailed images of your brain and spine. When you have one, you lie inside a tube-shaped scanner. It takes images in very small sections that a computer combines to make a 3-D picture. 

Your doctor can look at how well your nerves send messages with a nerve conduction study.  This test measures the speed and strength of the electrical activity in your nerves.

Electrodes are taped to your skin along the path of the nerves they want to study. One electrode will stimulate the nerve with a mild electrical impulse. This activates your nerves. The electrodes measure the current that moves down your nerve pathway. A slow and weak current shows sign of damage in a nerve.

Along with a nerve conduction study, your doctor may use electromyography. This test measures and records electrical activity of a muscle at rest and contracted. A doctor puts a small needle into a resting muscle. As you tense and rest the muscle, the needle picks up the activity and makes a waveform. Your doctor can look at the reading to help figure out how well a muscle is responding to messages.

In certain cases, your doctor may need a spinal tap (lumbar puncture) to look for inflammation in your central nervous system.