After a stroke, the injury to the brain can cause muscles
to contract or flex on their own when you try to use an arm or leg. The
sensation can be painful. It has been described as a “wicked charley horse.”
Because the muscle cannot move in its full range of motion, the tendons and soft
tissue surrounding the muscle can tighten or become shorter. If not treated, spasticity can cause the
muscle to “freeze” into an abnormal position, which can be very painful.
In the arm, spasticity can cause a balled-up fist, a bent elbow, or an
arm pressed to the chest. Spasticity in the leg can cause a pointed foot, a
curling toe, or a stiff knee. Spasticity can have a profound effect on the
quality of life, making it difficult to walk or do daily
Exercise and stretching are important
treatments for spasticity. Therapists will work with you to increase your range
of motion and help prevent permanent muscle shortening. You need to move the
affected limb over and over again, either on your own or with the help of a
therapist or a special machine.
If the joints of your affected limb
are not moved through their full range of motion, they can become stiff to the
point that they can no longer be straightened. Here are some tips to prevent
Change your position every 1 to 2 hours during
Position your affected arm or leg to keep its
mobility. For example, put a rolled washcloth in your hand to prevent hand
Exercise all your joints at least twice each
Do not allow your affected arm or leg to be under your body
when you are lying down.
Do not allow your affected arm or leg to
fall off the side of your bed or the wheelchair.
In some cases electrical stimulation is used on muscles. Casts or splints may be used to
hold muscles in their normal position. This helps to prevent the muscles from
shortening so they can work normally.
many years, oral medicines that help prevent spasms (antispasmodics), such as
baclofen, dantrolene (Dantrium), and tizanidine (Zanaflex), have been used to treat
spasticity from stroke. These medicines relax tight muscles and stop muscle
spasms. But they cause sleepiness and weakness and in some cases can cause
hallucinations and sleep problems.
Botulinum toxin or phenol injections directly into the
spastic muscle block messages that cause the muscle to contract.
Intrathecal baclofen is
the same medicine that is used orally, but in this case, the medicine is
delivered directly to the spinal cord through a small tube. The tube is
implanted into the spinal cord by a surgeon, who also implants a small pump
under the skin of the person’s abdomen to deliver the medicine. Because the
medicine is so targeted, the problems with sleepiness are avoided. This therapy
is used mostly for people who have severe spasticity.
Some people may need surgery to treat spasticity. For example, surgery
may be needed to lengthen or release muscles that are too tight in the arm or leg. Surgery may also be able to help someone regain movement in muscles that are weak or paralyzed.
Bates B, et al. (2010). Veterans Affairs/Department of
Defense clinical practice guideline: Management of stroke
rehabilitation. Available online: http://www.healthquality.va.gov/Management_of_Stroke_Rehabilitation.asp.
Winstein CJ, et al. (2016). Guidelines for adult stroke rehabilitation and recovery: A guideline for healthcare professionals from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association. Stroke, published online May 4, 2016. DOI: 10.1161/STR.0000000000000098. Accessed June 3, 2016.
ByHealthwise Staff Primary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson, MD – Internal Medicine Adam Husney, MD – Family Medicine Specialist Medical ReviewerRichard D. Zorowitz, MD – Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation