Understand your involuntary movements symptoms, including 7 causes and common questions.
Involuntary movements symptoms
Involuntary movements refers to the jerking, shaking, or uncoordinated motions that may accompany some forms of neurological illness. "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, or dystonia.
Common characteristics of myoclonus or muscle jerking
Myoclonus is muscle jerking, in which the muscles suddenly tighten and release. Everyone 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.
- 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.
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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
- Low blood sugar
Many drugs and medications can cause involuntary movement syndromes.
- Prescription medications
- Illegal drugs
- Abused medications
- Antipsychotic medications
Abnormal functioning of the part of the brain that coordinates movement, due to:
- Head or spinal cord injury
- Brain tumor
- Diseases which cause encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
- 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
- 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.
Generalized anxiety disorder (gad)
Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health problems in the United States. Generalized anxiety disorder refers to ongoing feelings of worry and anxiousness that persists for at least six months. Generalized anxiety disorder seems to run in families, making some individuals more vulnerable to stressors than others.
Symptoms include constant feelings of worry over both major and everyday events, difficulty concentrating or sleeping, feeling tired, irritability, as well as physical symptoms, such as headaches and body aches.
The diagnosis is made by patient history and physical examination to rule out physical causes. The individual may be referred to a mental health specialist for further evaluation and treatment, which may involve talk therapy to learn new ways to manage stress, medications, and lifestyle adjustments.
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
Low calcium level
Hypocalcemia is a condition where there is not enough calcium in the blood. Calcium is a mineral contained in the blood, which helps the heart and other muscles function properly, and is needed to maintain strong teeth and bones.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, shortness of breath, irritability, general numbness, tingling foot
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.
Top Symptoms: distal numbness, muscle aches, joint stiffness, numbness on both sides of body, loss of muscle mass
Urgency: Primary care doctor
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.
Top Symptoms: anxiety, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, nausea, constipation
Symptoms that always occur with parkinson's disease: symptoms of parkinsonism
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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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.
- What is Dystonia? Dystonia Medical Research Foundation. Dystonia Foundation Link.
- Myoclonus Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Updated July 6, 2018. NINDS Link.
- Tremor. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated January 29, 2018. MedlinePlus Link.
- Nakajima N, Ueda M, Nagayama H, Katayama Y. Hypoglycemia-Induced Spontaneous Unilateral Jerking Movement in Bilateral Internal Capsule Posterior Limb Abnormalities. Journal of the Neurological Sciences. 2014;338(1-2):220-222. NCBI Link.
- Medication-Induced Movement Disorders. Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders. Mind Disorders Link.
- O'Suilleabhain P, Dewey Jr. RB. Movement Disorders After Head Injury: Diagnosis and Management. The Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation. 2004;19(4):305-313. NCBI Link.
- Action Myoclonus-Renal Failure Syndrome. Genetics Home Reference. Published December 4, 2018. GHR Link.
- Peckham EL, Hallett M. Psychogenic Movement Disorders. Neurologic Clinics. 2009;27(3):801-vii. NCBI Link.
- Movement Disorders. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. AANS Link.
- Psychogenic Movement Information Page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Updated July 2, 2018. NINDS Link.