What Is Spasticity Or Muscle Stiffness in Multiple Sclerosis?

What Is Spasticity Or Muscle Stiffness in Multiple Sclerosis?

Muscle stiffness and spasms are among the most common symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis (MS), and are often described as ‘spasticity’. It affects around one in every five people at some time.1 Spasticity is a term that refers to feelings of stiffness and a wide range of involuntary muscle spasms. It can occur in any limb, but it is much more common in the legs.2

They emerge as a result of nerve damage that disrupts the signals between the brain and the muscle, causing the muscle to remain in a contracted state, making it tight or stiff. This muscle stiffness results in difficult muscle movement. The most common site of origin of these muscle spasms are legs, arms, back, and trunk.3 Spasticity can either result in stiffness of muscles does not go away or may cause movements that you cannot control. You will feel tightening of muscles, sometimes accompanied by severe pain. Spasticity also can make you feel tight or ache in and around your joints and lower back. Muscle spasms in MS may also be accompanied by weakness and repetitive, involuntary up and down movements of a muscle (known as clonus). The most common clonus in MS is the tapping movement of the foot on the floor.4

An imbalance in the electrical signals coming from the brain and spinal cord leads to spasticity, often when multiple sclerosis has damaged the nerves in that area. This imbalance makes your muscles contract on their own and makes them tight and tensed. Spasticity can get worse in extreme weather (too hot or too cold), when you have an infection, or if you’re wearing tight-fitting clothing.4

Muscle spasms are of various types depending on the type of muscle they affect. These are flexor spasms, extensor spasms, adductor spasms, and back/trunk spasms.

Flexor spasms cause a limb to bend, extensor spasms cause a limb to extend, adductor spasms cause a limb to point inwards, and back/trunk spasms cause the back to arch away from the chair.3

Muscle spasms can range from a minor inconvenience to problems that make daily life and activities uncomfortable, painful and difficult. If leg muscles are weak, for example, a certain amount of stiffness can help keeps the legs rigid and stable walking and standing. It is better to monitor the situation in such cases, to prevent further complications, rather than try and remove the stiffness completely. Severe stiffness or frequent spasms can affect your mobility and have a significant impact on day-to-day life. Extremely strong spasms jerk the body quite dramatically, causing limbs to move with considerable force, or to be held in uncomfortable positions.

Spasms sometimes cause particular problems at night. The jerking they can cause to the body, often the legs, might wake you up or your partner several times a night. Not getting good sleep at night can make living with MS more difficult, possibly making other symptoms (such as fatigue and weakness) worse.5

Consult your doctor immediately if:

  • You have visual abnormalities like swelling, redness or skin discoloration.
  • You are experiencing prolonged, severe pain that’s affecting your sleep and everyday life.
  • Your muscle spasms are accompanied by fever, nausea, and vomiting.
  • You are experiencing burning and tingling down the leg.6

Even if your spasms or stiffness are not a major problem for you, it is a good idea to make your doctor aware of the issue so that you can find appropriate ways to manage it and avoid complications later on.1

References:  

  1. Spasms and stiffness. Adapted from: https://www.mssociety.org.uk/about-ms/signs-and-symptoms/spasms-and-stiffness
  2. MS Symptoms. Adapted from: https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/MS-Symptoms
  3. Managing MS Muscle Spasms. Adapted from: https://multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com/managing-ms-muscle-spasms/
  4. Spasticity and MS: How to Control Your Muscles. Adapted from: https://www.webmd.com/multiple-sclerosis/controlling-muscle-spasms-multiple-sclerosis#1
  5. Muscle Spasm and stiffness. Practical living for everyday life with MS. Adapted from: http://ms-society.ie/uploads/File/Living%20with%20MS/Our%20publications/MS_Muscle_02.pdf
  6. 5 signs Your Muscles Spasms Are Something More Serious. Adapted from: www.womenshealthmag.com/health/a19950167/muscle-spasm-health-issue/

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