Spasticity After Stroke: What It Is and How It’s Treated

Muscle tightness after stroke is common, but there are options to recover.

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After a stroke, people may experience a variety of lingering effects. One of these possible long-term effects is called spasticity. Spasticity after stroke can be uncomfortable, increase the risk of accidents and injuries, and even affect one’s self-esteem. Luckily, there are ways to treat it.

What is spasticity after a stroke?

Spasticity refers to involuntary muscle contractions that cause stiffness and tightness in the limbs. For example, spasticity might cause the arm to stick in a bent position, making it difficult to extend. Another common example is when the hand closes into a fist, making it difficult to open. It’s perhaps more commonly associated with cerebral palsy.

Strokes can cause injury to the brain. Depending on where the injury occurs, it might lead to spasticity. (Learn more about how stroke affects the brain here.)

The theory is that you have electrical impulses in the brain that tell your limbs to move, flex, and contract. Typically, a healthy nervous system might hold back any unnecessary impulses. However, if this is damaged, those unwanted impulses occur, leading to involuntary muscle contractions and stiffness.

What are the effects of post-stroke muscle tightness?

Spasticity may have a number of effects on someone’s quality of life. For starters, it can be uncomfortable or even painful. It might feel tight or stiff, and this may also lead to pain in nearby joints.

Second, spasticity can increase the risk of falls, accidents, and injuries after a stroke. Uncontrollable spasms may affect coordination or balance, and tightness in the leg muscles could affect the ability to walk safely. They may need more help from others if they are unable to perform certain tasks and activities.

Finally, the appearance of flexed, bent, or contorted limbs may make some people feel self-conscious. Combined with the loss of independence, this can have a big effect on overall self-esteem. This is important to note because people have an increased risk of depression following a stroke.

What are the treatment options?

There are many treatment options for spasticity after stroke. Your stroke recovery team may use any combination of the following:

  • Physical therapy to improve strength and flexibility
  • Occupational therapy to improve coordination and ability to perform everyday activities
  • Oral medications to cope with symptoms caused by spasticity
  • Botulinum toxin injections to relax the muscles
  • Implanted devices to control impulses
  • Braces, casts, and splints to hold the limb in a less painful position

The important thing to know is that spasticity is treatable, so you don’t have to simply put up with it after a stroke. Talk to your doctor if you have muscle tightness that is uncomfortable or affecting your life. If one treatment option doesn’t work, talk to your doctor about other options — because there are many.