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Last Updated: October 26, 2017

Myoclonus

Overview

Myoclonus refers to a sudden, brief, and involuntary muscle jerk. Healthy people can have myoclonus in the form of hiccups and “sleep starts”, which are the sudden jerky sensations that can occur as people fall asleep. Myoclonus can also occur due to underlying neurological disorders such as epilepsy, metabolic conditions, or adverse reactions to medications. Importantly, myoclonus is a symptom, not a diagnosis of a disease.

Sudden positive muscle contractions are called positive myoclonus, whereas muscle relaxation is called negative myoclonus. Myoclonus can vary in frequency, and can occur alone or in a sequence. There are several underlying conditions that can give rise to myoclonus symptoms. Doctors aim to isolate and treat the underlying cause of myoclonus symptoms. When the underlying cause cannot be treated or cured, the aim of treatment is to alleviate severe myoclonus.

There are many types of myoclonus and each type may be caused by several underlying problems. Doctors try to identify the underlying cause of the myoclonus, which helps to determine the most appropriate and effective treatment.

Causes

Secondary or symptomatic myoclonus can occur due to a variety of underlying medical conditions. Examples include:

Secondary myoclonus can also occur due to neurological disorders such as:

Symptoms

Myoclonus is often described as jerks, shakes and spasms that are involuntary, sudden, brief, and shock-like. The symptoms can vary in intensity and frequency, and may be localized to one body part or be present all over the body. Severe myoclonus can interfere with a person’s ability to walk, talk or eat.

Diagnosis and Treatment

A doctor will typically review a patient’s medical history and perform a physical examination to first diagnose myoclonus. Several tests can be recommended to isolate the underlying cause of the myoclonus. These tests include:

The most effective way to treat myoclonus is by identifying and treating the underlying cause. When the cause cannot be identified and treated, the goal is to ease the myoclonus symptoms. Medications include:

Doctors may recommend surgery in cases where myoclonus symptoms are caused by tumors or lesions in the brain or spinal cord. Surgery may also be appropriate for patients who have myoclonus in the face or ear. Deep brain stimulation is currently under investigation as a potential treatment option for myoclonus.

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Authored by: Tina Shahian, PhD