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Involuntary Movements

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Last updated March 6, 2024

Involuntary movements quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your involuntary movements.

Understand your involuntary movements symptoms, including 7 causes and common questions.

Involuntary movements quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your involuntary movements.

Take involuntary movements quiz

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Involuntary movements symptoms

Involuntary movements refer to the jerking, shaking, or uncoordinated motions that may accompany some forms of neurological illness, such as Huntington's disease. "Involuntary" means that you have no control over said movements and they sometimes can be worsened by certain activities. Involuntary movements are commonly called tics, tremors, athetosis, or dystonia.

Common characteristics of myoclonus or muscle jerking

Myoclonus is muscle jerking, in which the muscles suddenly tighten and release. Everyone including children, has experienced this with hiccups or "sleep start," the sudden jerk that may happen just as a person falls asleep. These types of myoclonus are normal, but the condition can become severe and greatly disrupt normal life.

  • Action myoclonus: This is triggered by trying to move.
  • Stimulus-sensitive myoclonus: This is triggered by noise, light, or being startled.
  • Essential myoclonus: This occurs for no known reason and usually stabilizes over time.
  • Epileptic myoclonus: This is a form of epilepsy.
  • Secondary myoclonus: This is due to neurodegenerative disease.

Common characteristics of dystonia or muscle spasms

Dystonia is involuntary muscle spasm, where the muscles contract and don't want to release. This produces meaningless, uncoordinated movements.

  • Voluntary motion: It may be initiated by voluntary motion, especially specific activities such as writing or playing a musical instrument.
  • It worsens with stress or fatigue
  • Areas affected: It may affect the eyelids, jaw, tongue, lips, lower face and neck, vocal cords, and upper or lower extremities.
  • Neck muscle contraction: This is sometimes painful and causes the head to be held at odd angles.

Common characteristics of tremors

A tremor is simple shaking or trembling of any part of the body. The movements are usually not as pronounced as in myoclonus. It tends to be most noticeable in the hands and often increases with stress, even in children.

  • Essential tremor: This is the most common type and can be a condition in itself, unrelated to any other disease. It is triggered by posture or movement and produces uncontrolled trembling, often affecting the head and/or speech.
  • Intention tremor: This occurs when beginning to make a movement.
  • Resting tremor: This means you're not moving but some muscles, especially those in your hand, may still be trembling.

Duration of symptoms

Many conditions that cause involuntary movements are not curable, though nearly all can be managed with medication, physical therapy, counseling, and sometimes surgery.

Who is most often affected by involuntary movements?

Symptoms of these disorders rarely begin before age 40 and usually don't appear until after age 60 to 70. Some disorders do have juvenile forms that can appear before age 20.

Are involuntary movements serious?

The severity of involuntary movements is ultimately dependent on the cause and how much they affect your quality of life.

  • Not serious: Becoming exhausted and dehydrated through physical work or sports or allowing blood sugar to drop too low (hypoglycemia), can produce shaking and signs of incoordination. As long as these resolve with rest, fluids, and food, it is not serious.
  • Moderately serious: Any other kind of tremor or involuntary movement should be seen by a medical provider right away.
  • Serious: Anyone with a history of dystonia who is also undergoing physical or emotional shock, such as surgery, injury, or the loss of a loved one, is at risk for severe dystonia that can be life-threatening.

Involuntary movements causes

Many conditions can cause the symptom of involuntary movements. We've listed several different involuntary movement causes here, in approximate order from most to least common:

Physical involuntary movement causes

The following causes may result in involuntary movements that are usually not serious.

  • Exhaustion from hard work or exercise
  • Dehydration
  • Low blood sugar

Drug reactions

Many drugs and medications can cause involuntary movement syndromes.

  • Prescription medications
  • Illegal drugs
  • Abused medications
  • Antipsychotic medications
  • Alcoholism

Neurologic dysfunction

Abnormal functioning of the part of the brain that coordinates movement, due to:

  • Head or spinal cord injury
  • Stroke
  • Brain tumor
  • Diseases which cause encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
  • Infection
  • Kidney and/or liver failure
  • Chemical or drug poisoning

Psychological involuntary movement causes

This is more common in women and severely interferes with quality of life. The cause is entirely psychological and may involve mental illness:

  • Severe depression
  • Severe anxiety
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder

Neurological or neurodegenerative diseases

These are progressive illnesses and slowly get worse over time. They are caused by disorders of the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, due to:

  • Heredity: Many neurodegenerative illnesses run in families and are inherited, though not all family members need to be affected.
  • Autoimmune conditions: The body's own immune system turns against some of its other systems in this case, the nervous system. The reasons for this are not clear.

7 involuntary movements conditions

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS)

Restless Legs Syndrome, also called RLS or Willis-Ekbom Disease, is a neurologic and sensory disorder. It causes uncomfortable sensations in the legs that are only relieved by walking or by moving the legs.

The cause is not in the legs but in the brain. One theory is low levels of iron in the brain.

RLS may be hereditary. It is more common in women than in men, especially in middle age. It may get more severe as the person gets older.

Symptoms may happen only a few times a week and are usually worse at night.

There will be an irresistible urge to move the legs in order to relieve the uncomfortable sensations; difficulty sleeping, with daytime exhaustion and inability to concentrate; and sometimes depression and anxiety due to the effect on quality of life.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination. Blood tests and sleep studies may be done.

Treatment involves first addressing any underlying medical condition, such as iron deficiency. In some cases, anti-seizure medications can be helpful.

Parkinson's disease

Parkinson's disease is a lifelong condition movement disorder. It is caused by the malfunction and death of nerve cells which results in symptoms like tremors.

You should visit your primary care physician to discuss your symptoms.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: anxiety, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, nausea, constipation

Symptoms that always occur with parkinson's disease: symptoms of parkinsonism

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Overactive thyroid

Overactive thyroid, or hyperthyroidism, means that the thyroid gland in the neck produces an excess of the hormone thyroxine and causes a metabolic imbalance.

Hyperthyroidism can be caused by autoimmune disorders such as Graves' disease; by benign growths in the thyroid; or by inflammation of the gland, called thyroiditis.

The condition may run in families. Women seem to be more commonly affected than men.

Hyperthyroidism causes very high metabolism with sudden and unexplained weight loss, rapid and irregular heartbeat, sweating, nervousness, and anxiety.

Goiter, or swelling of the thyroid gland, may appear at the base of the neck. The eyeballs can protrude and become irritated, a condition called Graves' ophthalmopathy.

If not treated, hyperthyroidism can lead to serious heart rhythm abnormalities and osteoporosis. An endocrinologist can diagnose the condition through a physical examination and simple blood test.

Treatment is done with anti-thyroid medications and sometimes radioactive iodine. Surgery to remove part of the thyroid gland may be done. The condition usually responds well to treatment and monitoring, and to improved diet, exercise, and stress reduction.

Low calcium level

Hypocalcemia is a condition where there is not enough calcium in the blood. Calcium is a mineral contained in the blood and helps the heart and other muscles function properly. It is also needed to maintain healthy teeth and bones. Low calcium levels can cause bones to become brittle and more easily fractured. Parathyroid issues and vitamin D deficiency are common causes of this condition.

You should consider visiting a medical professional to discuss your symptoms. Low calcium levels can be evaluated with a review of your symptoms and a blood test. Once diagnosed, treatment depends on the cause of your low calcium levels.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, shortness of breath, irritability, general numbness, tingling foot

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Generalized tonic-clonic seizure

A seizure is a short burst of uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain. A generalized tonic-clonic seizure affects both halves of the brain, and comes in two phases (tonic and clonic). The tonic phase is characterized by rigidity of all muscles and loss of consciousness. Saliva may escape the mouth, and the bladder may contract, releasing urine. The clonic phase follows, when the body appears to shake. This may last from seconds to minutes. The person gradually regains consciousness. A seizure may be caused by an underlying disease such as epilepsy, or by triggers such as heavy drinking, drugs, or anxiety.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: being severely ill, brief fainting episode, confusion/disorientation after returning to consciousness, not having protected the body during the fall, eyes rolling back while passing out

Symptoms that always occur with generalized tonic-clonic seizure: being severely ill, loss of consciousness without remembering, confusion/disorientation after returning to consciousness

Urgency: Emergency medical service

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, refers to an ongoing feeling of worry and anxiousness about everything and nothing at once. The feeling never really lifts no matter what steps might be taken.

GAD seems to run in families, making some individuals more vulnerable to stress and environmental factors than others.

Symptoms include constant feelings of worry over everyday things and major events; difficulty concentrating or sleeping; being jumpy or easily startled; always feeling tired; irritability; and physical symptoms of headaches and body aches.

Ongoing GAD can be quite debilitating and interfere with quality of life. Any medical provider can send the patient to an appropriate physician for further help.

Diagnosis is made by patient history, followed by a physical examination to rule out any physical cause. The patient will be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist for further evaluation.

Treatment involves cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps the patient learn to respond to the world in healthier ways and, especially, to manage stress. Antidepressant medication may be prescribed, since it can be helpful for anxiety.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, trouble sleeping, general anxiety (stress), irritability, nausea

Symptoms that always occur with generalized anxiety disorder (gad): general anxiety (stress)

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Chronic idiopathic peripheral neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy refers to the feeling of numbness, tingling, and pins-and-needles sensation in the feet. Idiopathic means the cause is not known, and chronic means the condition is ongoing without getting better or worse.

The condition is most often found in people over age 60. Idiopathic neuropathy has no known cause.

Symptoms include uncomfortable numbness and tingling in the feet; difficulty standing or walking due to pain and lack of normal sensitivity; and weakness and cramping in the muscles of the feet and ankles.

Peripheral neuropathy can greatly interfere with quality of life, so a medical provider should be seen in order to treat the symptoms and reduce the discomfort.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination; blood tests to rule out other conditions; and neurologic and muscle studies such as electromyography.

Treatment involves over-the-counter pain relievers; prescription pain relievers to manage more severe pain; physical therapy and safety measures to compensate for loss of sensation in the feet; and therapeutic footwear to help with balance and walking.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: distal numbness, muscle aches, joint stiffness, numbness on both sides of body, loss of muscle mass

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Cervical dystonia (spasmodic torticollis)

Cervical dystonia is a pain condition in which the neck muscles contract involuntarily, causing the head to twist or turn to one side. It can also cause the head to uncontrollably tilt forward or backward.

You should visit your primary care physician to confirm the diagnosis and discuss treatment options for managing symptoms.

Rarity: Ultra rare

Top Symptoms: pain in the back of the neck, tremor, spontaneous neck pain, repetitive abnormal head and neck posturing

Symptoms that always occur with cervical dystonia (spasmodic torticollis): repetitive abnormal head and neck posturing

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Brain tumor or mass

In medical terms, "mass" and "tumor" mean the same thing: the unexplained, out-of-place growth of tissue anywhere in the body, including the brain.

The cause of any sort of brain tumor is unknown. Some originate in the brain, while others spread from cancers growing in other parts of the body.

Symptoms may include increasing headaches; nausea and vomiting; blurred or double vision; loss of sensation in an arm or leg; loss of balance; confusion; speech difficulties; or seizures.

If symptoms persist, it is important to see a medical provider so that any treatment can begin as soon as possible.

Diagnosis is made through neurological examination, CT scan, and/or MRI.

If the mass or tumor is found to be benign, that means it is not cancer and not harmful. It may or may not be treated.

If it is malignant, that means it is cancer and must be treated. This will involve some combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy, followed by specialized therapy to help with recovery.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, nausea, loss of appetite, irritability

Symptoms that always occur with brain tumor or mass: focal neurological symptoms

Urgency: In-person visit

Involuntary movements treatments and relief

When involuntary movements are an emergency

Seek immediate treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if there are symptoms of "dystonic storm." This is an acute, overall dystonic contraction that can paralyze the respiratory muscles. The person usually remains conscious but will not be able to speak, since the extensive spasms affect the muscles of the face and throat.

When to see a doctor for involuntary movements

You should schedule an appointment for:

  • Referral for counseling: Or other assistance with stress management, if you're either the patient or a caretaker
  • Discussion of physical therapy: This is sometimes helpful for these involuntary movement symptoms.
  • Discussion of medication: Medication may ease symptoms of movement disorders. There are a number of medications that are quite effective.
  • Discussion of surgery: This is typically reserved for severe cases that are not helped by other methods.

At-home treatments for involuntary movements

You can begin addressing your symptoms at home with the following methods.

  • Improve overall health: Make changes in diet, sleep, and exercise in order to improve overall health.
  • Relax or try to limit stress: Many forms of involuntary movement improve with relaxation techniques and appropriate sensory stimulation.

Questions your doctor may ask about involuntary movements

  • Are you having difficulty concentrating or thinking through daily activities?
  • Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Do you currently smoke?
  • Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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The stories shared below are not written by Buoy employees. Buoy does not endorse any of the information in these stories. Whenever you have questions or concerns about a medical condition, you should always contact your doctor or a healthcare provider.
Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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