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Spasticity and Stiffness as a Symptom of Multiple Sclerosis

Spasticity can slow us down, or stop us in our tracks.

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Updated January 24, 2009

Spasticity is best understood as an increase in muscle tone. While that may sound good to some of us who bemoan the flabbier parts of our bodies, what it really means is that the muscles do not relax as much or as easily as they should. Because of this, spasticity affects movement (and is therefore considered a motor symptom, as opposed to a sensory symptom).

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What Does Spasticity Feel Like?

Spasticity tends to occur more often in the legs than in the arms. It also tends to be asymmetrical, meaning it is worse or happens more often on one side of the body than the other. There are several types of spasms that affect people with MS:

Extensor Spasms: These happen when a limb, usually a leg, stiffens and the person is unable to bend the joint. These cause the limb, usually a leg, to jerk away from the body. It usually affects the quadriceps (the large muscles on the front of the thigh), causing the lower leg to straighten.

Flexor Spasms: This type of spasm causes a limb to contract, or bend, toward the body. This type of spasm almost always affects the legs, especially the hamstrings or hip flexors.

Clonus: This is when muscles jerk or twitch repeatedly. The most common forms of clonus is when a person’s foot taps rapidly and repetitively on the floor or knee or ankle jerk repeatedly after stimulation (such as tapping at the joint), rather than the normal response of one tap or jerk.

Adductor Spasms: These are more rare. These spasms cause a person’s legs to close together tightly, making it difficult to separate them.

Stiffness: This can be thought of as mild spasticity. While not as dramatic as some of the forms of spasms described above, when muscles are slow to relax, it can cause problems walking or using the hands and fingers to perform delicate movements. In some cases, the stiffness may not pose a huge problem. In other cases, the spasticity can cause problems with mobility or be painful enough to interfere with daily life.

How Common Is It?

Most experts estimate that about 20% of people with MS experience some degree of spasticity at some point. However, some research indicates that up to one-third of people with multiple sclerosis alter their daily activities because of spasticity.

What Causes It?

Like most other MS symptoms, spasticity is primarily caused by demyelination. Because of slow or interrupted nerve impulses, the muscles may do three things: not relax as quickly as they should, tighten involuntarily or stay contracted for longer periods of time -- or constantly. Several things will aggravate spasticity, acting as a “trigger” for spasms. These include:
  • Infections, such as respiratory, urinary tract or bladder infections
  • Pain
  • Sores or skin breakdown
  • An increase in internal temperature (i.e. because of a fever or excessive exercise)
  • A full bladder
  • Binding, rubbing or otherwise irritating clothes
  • Constipation
  • Problems with posture
  • Stress, worry or anxiety
  • Extreme environmental temperatures

How Severe Can It Get?

For many people, spasticity can be an annoyance or a passing problem that hinders smooth walking one day, but is absent the next. It may just be that walking quickly or climbing stairs is harder than it was previously. Others may actually benefit from mild spasticity or stiffness, as it can counteract some degree of muscle weakness and make it easier to stand.

However, for some people, severe forms of spasticity or stiffness can cause a problem with mobility, as walking becomes difficult or impossible. Some spasms can be aggravated when moving from the bed into a wheelchair. Some extensor spasms can be so sudden and strong that the person can fall out of a chair or bed. Flexor spasms can cause limbs to be held in painful positions and lead to secondary joint pain.

Additional Points/Information About Spasticity

First, Try Getting Rid of Triggers: There are many different treatments for spasticity, depending on the type of spasm, the severity and responsiveness to medication. However, the first thing to try is eliminating some of the triggers mentioned above to see if that helps, especially if the spasms seem to happen in particular situations.

Other Treatments: The main treatments or management approaches of spasticity include:

  • Physical therapy in the form of stretching, either passively (someone stretches the person’s limbs for them) or actively (the person tries to stretch their muscles themselves, or hydrotherapy (exercising in water)
  • Use of mechanical aids, such as braces
  • Oral medications, which include baclofen, different classes of antispasticity and antiseizure drugs, as well as some antihistamines, medications to treat Parkinson’s disease and benzodiazapenes (the type of drug depends on the location, type and severity of the spasms)
  • Intrathecal baclofen, which is an implanted pump injecting the drug into the space in the spinal column containing the cerebrospinal fluid
  • Chemical blocks, using phenol injected into the muscles of the legs
  • Botox, which is typically used for treating small muscles or areas
  • Surgery in which nerves are severed, this is for the most severe cases

Some Spasms Respond to CAM: Many people experiencing spasticity try different complementary and alternative methods to relieve it, including: yoga, acupuncture, reflexology, biofeedback, massage, Tai Chi and others.

Sources:

M A Rizzo, O C Hadjimichael, J Preiningerova, and T L Vollmer. Prevalence and treatment of spasticity reported by multiple sclerosis patients. Multiple Sclerosis. Oct 2004; vol. 10: pp. 589-595.

Randall T. Shapiro. Managing the Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis (5th ed.). New York: Demos Medical Publishing, 2007.

Olek, Michael J. "Comorbid problems associated with multiple sclerosis in adults." UpToDate. Accessed: December 2008.

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