What Is Tetany?

Shortness of breath is one symptom of tetany.
Tetany may cause abdominal spasms.
A urinalysis is often performed to test kidney function, which can be affected by tetany.
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  • Written By: J.M. Willhite
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 26 November 2014
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Tetany is a muscle condition characterized by involuntary muscle contractions and spasms. Associated with calcium deficiency, tetany is commonly linked to hypoparathyroidism, but may also occur with other conditions, including tetanus infection and kidney disease. Treatment for tetany involves restoring the body’s calcium balance.

Involuntary muscle cramping is a medical sign that calcium levels in the body have dipped below normal, a condition known as hypocalcemia. Many of the body’s systems rely on calcium in order to function. Calcium distribution is governed by the parathyroid glands, which are located in the neck. These glands are in charge of the production and distribution of parathyroid hormone, a key element in the regulation of calcium in the body. If parathyroid function becomes impaired, calcium levels can plummet leading to involuntary muscle spasms.

There are several tetany symptoms that may occur singly or in combination. The most common sign is involuntary muscle spasms that cause twitching or shaking in the affected area. Individuals with low calcium levels experience abdominal discomfort, a lack of energy and chronic diarrhea. Some people may also develop shortness of breath or tingling in their limbs.

If symptoms worsen or are accompanied by impaired sensory perception, seizures or paralysis, emergency medical care should be sought as these are the signs of serious complication. Prolonged symptoms can result in a range of complications. Diminished calcium levels can contribute to organ failure, paralysis and death.


Just because someone develops involuntary muscle spasms, it doesn’t necessarily mean his or her parathyroid glands are not functioning normally. There are several other tetany causes that can adversely affect calcium levels. Tetanus infection can cause a rapid depletion of calcium in the body leading to involuntary, painful muscle spasms. Individuals with thyroid, nerve and kidney disorders may exhibit symptoms. Dehydration and hyperventilation can also place one at risk for tetany.

Vitamin D plays a pivotal role in calcium absorption. In order for the body to properly take in and make use of calcium, vitamin D must be present. Therefore, individuals with a vitamin D deficiency are considered at greatest risk for impaired muscle function.

There are several laboratory and diagnostic tests that may be performed to determine the cause of one’s symptoms. A blood panel may be ordered to check hormone and mineral levels, including magnesium and calcium. If kidney function is impaired, too much calcium may be expelled during urination, therefore, a urinalysis may be performed. Additional imaging tests may also be conducted to evaluate organ function, bone density and discount other conditions that may mimic tetany symptoms.

Treatment for calcium-based muscle contractions requires the restoration of proper calcium levels in the body. Supplemental calcium, sometimes in combination with vitamin D, is administered over the short or long term depending on the severity of one’s symptoms. It is essential the underlying cause of the tetany is determined and properly addressed to alleviate symptoms and minimize the risk of recurrence.


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