What is it?
Spasticity is like a “wicked charley horse.” Brain injury from stroke sometimes causes muscles to involuntarily contract (shorten or flex) when you try to move your limb. This creates stiffness and tightness.
When a muscle can't complete its full range of motion, the tendons and soft tissue surrounding it can become tight. This makes stretching the muscle much more difficult. If left untreated, the muscle can freeze permanently into an abnormal and often painful position.
Spasticity in the arm can cause a tight fist, bent elbow and arm pressed against the chest. This can seriously interfere with a stroke survivor's ability to perform daily activities such as dressing. Spasticity in the leg may cause a stiff knee, pointed foot and curling toes.
How is it treated?
Healthcare providers consider the severity of spasticity, overall health and other factors to prescribe an appropriate treatment plan, which may include any or a combination of the following:
- Physical exercise and stretching
Stretching helps maintain full range of motion and prevent permanent muscle shortening.
Braces can hold a muscle in a normal position to keep it from contracting.
- Intrathecal baclofen therapy (ITB)
ITB delivers medication where it's most effective and minimizes side effects that often accompany oral medications. A small pump is surgically implanted to supply baclofen to the spinal cord.
- Oral Medications
Several oral medications can help relax the nerves so that they don't send a continuous message to the muscles to contract. Side effects may occur with oral medications, such as weakness, drowsiness or nausea.
Some medications can be injected to block nerves and help relieve spasticity in a particular muscle group. This treatment weakens or paralyzes the overactive muscle. Side effects are minimized, but there may be soreness where injected.
How do I know which treatment is best for me?
Talk to your doctor about the most effective treatments for you. Every person responds differently to the various treatments. With intrathecal baclofen therapy (ITB), your healthcare professional will administer a standard screening test to determine whether the therapy is right for you.
Read more about spasticity in the May/June 2011 edition of Stroke Connection Magazine.
Read "Loosening the Grip of Post-Stroke Spasticity" from the August 2012 edition of Heart Insight Magazine.
Learn more about physical challenges after stroke.