Uncontrolled Muscle Spasms of Epilepsy

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: November 2021

Epilepsy is a neurological disease in which nerve cells in the brain do not work properly. This can result in abnormal electrical activity in the brain, which can cause a seizure. Different symptoms result when nerves in the brain misfire.1

Some of the most common symptoms are changes in muscle tone or uncontrolled muscle movements. Someone’s muscles may spasm, causing them to jerk or flail. Others may lose muscle tone, causing them to fall or slump over. Some people are unable to move or get stiff suddenly.1

One or many of these muscle changes may happen with each seizure. Or, the muscles may react differently from one seizure to the next. Muscle changes may happen on 1 side of the body, both arms or legs, or over the whole body.1

What causes this?

Different types of seizures cause different types of muscle changes. This is caused by the part of the brain involved in the seizure. In general:1,2

  • Myoclonic seizures cause brief jerking of the muscles, usually on both sides of the body.
  • Clonic seizures cause repeated, rhythmic jerking on both sides of the body, including the face and neck.
  • Tonic seizures cause muscle stiffness.
  • Atonic seizures cause the muscles to relax so the person may fall or slump over.

In some types of seizures, muscles may react in more than 1 way. For instance, a person with generalized tonic-clonic seizures will first have stiff, rigid muscles followed by rhythmic muscle movements in the whole body.1

Someone with 1 of the myoclonic epilepsies will have abnormal movements on both sides of the body at the same time. In these epilepsies, muscles in the neck, shoulders, or upper arms are most often affected.4

Other things to know

After a seizure that involves muscle changes or movement, the person may have injuries. If they hit their head, fell, or kicked, they may have cuts, bruises, broken bones, or a head injury. The bladder or bowel muscles may release during or after the seizure as the body relaxes.3

The muscles may be sore after a seizure that involves abnormal movements. Some people are weak and tired after such seizures.1,3

How are these symptoms diagnosed?

Seizures with uncontrolled muscle movements are diagnosed using a test called an EEG (electroencephalogram). An EEG checks electrical activity in the brain.7

It is also important to keep a seizure journal. Loved ones should make videos of seizures when they occur. This record of when seizures happen, what seems to trigger them, and what they look like will help your doctor create your treatment plan.7

How are these seizures treated?

Safety is important if someone has uncontrolled muscle movement during a seizure. The basic steps of seizure safety include:5,6

  • Turn the person on their side if they are not awake
  • Put something soft under their head
  • Move sharp or hard objects away so they cannot injure themselves
  • Do not put anything in their mouth or restrain them
  • Do not let them run or wander off
  • Stay with them until they are awake and alert
  • Time the seizure
  • Call 911 if the seizure lasts more than 5 minutes, if they are injured, or if they do not return to their usual state

Epilepsy is treated in a variety of ways. There are 3 goals to treating epilepsy: controlling seizures, avoiding side effects, and improving quality of life. Treatments may include:7

  • Anti-seizure drugs
  • Surgery
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Diet and nutrition
  • Supportive devices such as a smartwatch
  • An epilepsy service dog

Doctors believe 7 out of 10 people with epilepsy can become seizure-free with treatment. Some people can eventually stop taking anti-seizure medicines.8

Changes in muscle tone are just 1 possible symptom of epilepsy. Other potential signs of epilepsy include:

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