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What Is Hypertonia?

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  • Written By: Meshell Powell
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 13 March 2014
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Hypertonia is a medical condition that is characterized by increased muscle tension, which causes muscles to have difficulty stretching. Hypertonia is often referred to as abnormal muscle stiffness and is common in diseases such as cerebral palsy, although it can develop with no known cause. Natural disease processes and traumatic injuries sometimes lead to the development of hypertonia. Treatment may include the use of prescription medications and physical or occupational therapy, or, in the most severe cases, surgical intervention may become necessary.

There are two different types of hypertonia, labeled as either spastic or dystonic. Spastic hypertonia involves stiff muscles, uncontrollable muscle spasms, and muscle contractions that often feel like electrical shocks. This type of hypertonia is frequently found in patients with cerebral palsy or spinal cord injuries. Dystonic hypertonia involves muscle rigidity, meaning that even a physical therapist may have trouble getting the muscles to stretch. This is a common complication of Parkinson's disease.

Prescription medications are often used to treat both types of hypertonia. Some of these medications are formulated to be taken by mouth, while others are designed to be injected directly into the body. Common oral medications include diazepam, dantrolene, or baclofen. The baclofen may also be used in the form of an injection. The botulinum toxin may also be used in an injectible form to treat these muscle conditions.

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Physical and occupational therapy are often helpful in allowing the muscles to be stretched. The patient may be advised to perform range of motion exercises to keep the affected muscles from becoming too rigid to move. Frequent stretching of the affected muscles may also prove to be beneficial. These methods have the most success when started as soon as possible after the onset of the condition.

In severe cases, when the muscles will not stretch even with help from medical professionals, more intense medical intervention may become necessary. A type of surgery known as a selective dorsal rhizotomy is the most common type of surgery used for this purpose. In this procedure, the nerves that are responsible for creating the muscle tension are cut. This type of surgery often helps the patient regain at least some increased level of movement.

The prognosis for those who suffer from hypertonia depends greatly upon the severity of the condition as well as the underlying cause. This condition can cause varying degrees of pain and functional limitations, sometimes leaving the patient feeling as if the overall quality of life has been reduced. Proper medical care and a good emotional support system can often help to improve the health of the patient as well as the quality of life.

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