Involuntary Movements

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What are involuntary movements?

Involuntary movements are motions you can’t control. You can classify them several ways. One of the most basic groupings is normal and abnormal. The body has quite a few types of normal involuntary movements, including reflexive and spontaneous movements.

Reflexes are motions that result from some sort of stimulus, like extending your knee in response to a doctor tapping it. If a flying particle of debris approaches your face your eyelids automatically close. Spontaneous movements generally take place in organs, such as the heart and digestive system. You may have temporary control over some of these movements like breathing. This is called suppressible. But spontaneous involuntary movements are mostly uncontrollable and not suppressible.

Abnormal involuntary movements aren’t a regular part of normal body function. Types of abnormal involuntary movements include:

  • Jerking movements that are usually sudden and can be large or small. They may be repetitive or occur as single events.
  • Repetitive movements, and sometimes sounds, that may be rhythmic or nonrhythmic. Essential tremor is the most common abnormal involuntary movement.
  • Twisting or writhing movements that can be fast or slow and affect the muscles of the limbs, trunk, head and neck. They are usually repetitive, but not rhythmic.

Abnormal involuntary movements occur with certain movement disorders. These disorders can be benign—meaning they don’t threaten your health—or they can be pathologic—meaning they involve disease. Abnormal involuntary movements can also be side effects of some medicines.

Seek prompt medical care if you notice unintended movements that persist. It’s important to understand if there is an underlying disease causing these movements. For many movement disorders, the earlier you seek care, the better the outcome is likely to be.

What other symptoms might occur with involuntary movements?

Other symptoms can occur along with involuntary movements depending on the underlying cause. Symptoms can vary by the area of the body, whether they affect one or both sides of the body, and what factors make them better or worse.

Muscle-related symptoms that may occur along with involuntary movements

Involuntary movements may accompany other symptoms affecting movement including:

  • Balance problems
  • Postural change

Cognitive-related symptoms that may occur along with involuntary movements

With some underlying disorders, cognitive symptoms may occur with involuntary movements including:

  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Impaired judgement
  • Problems with concentration, organization and planning
  • Slow thought processing

Psychiatric-related symptoms that may occur along with involuntary movements

Psychiatric-related symptoms can also occur along with involuntary movements in some cases. This includes:

  • Personality changes
  • Social withdrawal and suicidal thoughts

Other symptoms that may occur along with involuntary movements

Other symptoms include:

  • Abnormal sensations
  • Vision changes

Serious symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition

Sometimes, involuntary movements may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a more serious condition, such as stroke. Seek immediate medical care if you have any of these potentially serious or life-threatening symptoms:

  • Disorientation, confusion, or loss of consciousness
  • Facial drooping or paralysis on one side
  • High fever, fast heart rate, or fast breathing
  • Numbness or loss of function on one side of the body
  • Rigid muscles
  • Sudden blurred vision, inability to speak, or problems understanding speech

What causes involuntary movements?

Abnormal involuntary movements usually originate from a movement disorder.

Movement disorder causes of involuntary movements

Abnormal involuntary movements may arise from certain types of movement disorders including:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Dystonia
  • Essential tremor or familial tremor, which is the most common involuntary movement disorder
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Tourette’s syndrome and other tic disorders
  • Wilson’s disease

Medication causes of involuntary movements

Abnormal involuntary movements can also be a side effect of some medicines including:

  • Amphetamines, methylphenidate and cocaine
  • Antinausea drugs, such as promethazine (Phenergan) and metoclopramide (Reglan)
  • Anti-Parkinson drugs
  • Antipsychotic drugs and certain antidepressants
  • Antiseizure drugs, including phenytoin (Dilantin) and carbamazepine (Tegretol)
  • Lithium

Serious or life-threatening causes of involuntary movements

In some cases, abnormal involuntary movements may be a symptom of a serious or potentially life-threatening condition including:

  • Dystonic storm, which is a stress reaction in people with dystonia
  • Head and neck trauma
  • Neuroleptic malignant syndrome, which is a life-threatening drug side effect

When should you see a doctor for involuntary movements?

Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice your body making movements you can’t control. If a movement disorder is responsible, early diagnosis may make a difference in your prognosis.

In some cases, involuntary movements may be a sign of a more serious condition, such as stroke or neuroleptic malignant syndrome. Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room for potentially serious symptoms including:

  • Muscle rigidity
  • One-sided paralysis, numbness, or facial drooping
  • Rapid heart rate or breathing rate
  • Sudden vision changes, difficulty speaking, or inability to understand speech

How is the cause of involuntary movements diagnosed?

In general, there are no specific, definitive tests for movement disorders. Instead, the diagnosis relies on a careful evaluation of your medical history and physical exam. This will likely include a neurological exam and possibly a psychiatric/mental status exam. Seeing a doctor with expertise in diagnosing these disorders is an important part of the diagnostic process.

Doctors may also order tests to help with their assessment including:

  • Blood and urine analyses
  • Brain imaging exams
  • Genetic tests

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed healthcare provider will ask you several questions related to your involuntary movements including:

  • How long have you noticed unintended movements?
  • What body parts are affected?
  • Are your symptoms constant or do they come and go?
  • Are you experiencing any other symptoms, such as pain or loss of sensation?
  • When do your symptoms occur?
  • What, if anything, makes your symptoms worse or better?
  • Do you have a family history of movement disorders or genetic conditions?
  • What medications do you take?

It is not always possible to diagnose an underlying cause or condition. If the problem persists and your provider is unable to determine a cause, seeking a second opinion may give you more information and answers.

How are involuntary movements treated?

Since abnormal involuntary movements are a symptom of another problem, treatment depends on the cause. For benign causes, no treatment may be necessary unless it gets in the way of daily living. Essential tremor is an example. For others, early treatment can prevent or delay progression and disability.

Depending on the underlying movement disorder, doctors may recommend the following treatment options:

  • Balance exercises
  • Occupational therapy
  • Stretching and strength exercises

These treatments can help improve symptoms and maintain your independence. However, medicines may be necessary for some disorders. Medicines generally won’t cure the disorder. But they may be able to delay progression and help you lead an active life.

Other treatments may include botulinum toxin injections and surgery, in severe cases. Botulinum toxin blocks nerve signals to muscles to prevent contractions. Surgery may include deep brain stimulation (DBS) and selective denervation. DBS uses an implanted brain electrode and a pulse generator to control movements. Selective denervation cuts the nerves that supply specific muscles.

What are the potential complications of involuntary movements?

Abnormal involuntary movements and the movement disorders that cause them may lead to complications including:

  • Disability
  • Falls and injuries
  • Impaired ability to care for yourself and perform activities of daily living
  • Inability to communicate
  • Reduced quality of life

Some movement disorders that cause involuntary movements are eventually fatal.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Feb 9
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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