Involuntary Movements: Types, Causes, and Treatments

Involuntary movements can either be temporary or chronic. Learn the major types and their symptoms, causes and how these are managed.

Involuntary movements are a condition when parts of the body move involuntarily by themselves. It is most often seen in facial movements, arms, legs, and the neck. In medical terms, these are called “dyskinesia” and have different reasons for happening. Patients will usually experience uncontrollable tremors, twitches, abnormal postures, and shuffling quick movements of the hands and feet.

Main Types

1.       Dystonia

Dystonia causes muscles to contract and not relax. This results in the twisting of extremities and placing them in unnatural positions or postures. It can be mild, moderate, or severe and bad enough to make it hard to perform normal daily functions. Local dystonia affects only one part of the body, while generalized dystonia affects the entire body. One example is writer’s cramp, which commonly happens after long periods of writing with the hand in the same position.

The symptoms of dystonia include:

  • Arms/Hands/Legs/Feet – Inability to write, walk, use hands. The attacks may only happen when doing repetitive tasks.
  • Eyes – Eyes may close on their own and reduce the ability to see. Eyes may also blink very fast on their own.
  • Face/Head/Neck – The facial muscles may contract and the head and neck may get stuck in unnatural positions. It may also cause the vocal chords to malfunction and cause a whisper type voice.

2.       Twitches and Tics

Twitches and tics are actually a pretty common form of involuntary jerky movements. They can be chronic or only happen once in a while. Twitches are spasms in the muscles of the eyelids, face or other areas of the body. Tics can be involuntary movements or vocalizations that happen suddenly and then go away. It might be the blink of an eye repeatedly or nose twitching. Tourette’s syndrome is one example of a disorder where tics occur on a regular basis at random times. However, some children may experience nervous tics as a normal part of development and the condition quickly resolves.

Symptoms of twitches and tics include:

  • Eye twitches
  • Nose twitches
  • Grimaces in the face
  • Grunting noises
  • Eye squinting
  • Mouth twitching
  • Clearing of the throat

3.       Myoclonus

These involuntary movements are jerky and happen quickly. If you have ever “jumped” when falling asleep, this is a form of myoclonus. Hiccups are another type. They are very common and benign, but some are caused by a problem with the nervous system. They can also be a side effect of medication. Some are chronic and often the cause of disability due to inability to control the movements.

Symptoms of myoclonus include twitching or jerking movements that:

  • Are one part of the body or the body as a whole.
  • Happen suddenly.
  • Go away quickly.
  • Are shock-like.
  • Are different each time they happen.

4.       Tardive Dyskinesia

This is a more severe form involving mostly the head, but can affect the extremities and trunk. It involves the actual brain center that controls movement and usually happens in people taking neuroleptic medications. It can also happen with street drug abuse. This condition is most common in people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder who use antipsychotic and neuroleptic medications.

Symptoms of tardive dyskinesia are:

  • Involuntary head movement
  • Involuntary tongue movements
  • Rhythmic jaw movements
  • Chewing movements
  • Finger movements
  • Twisting of the trunk and posturing
  • Eye rolling

5.       Cervical Dystonia

Cervical dystonia is painful spasms of the neck. The neck muscles contract and the head gets stuck to one side or to the front or back. It can also cause twisting of the neck. This disorder is rare and can happen at any age, but most common in middle aged women. Another name and form of this condition is known as torticollis. It can come on suddenly due to injury or neck muscle issues. It can also be a congenital malformation of the neck muscles.

Symptoms of cervical dystonia include:

  • Head locked up with chin to shoulder
  • Head locked with chin up or down
  • Head locked with ear to shoulder
  • Head jerking uncontrollably
  • Neck pain
  • Headaches

6.       Tremors

A tremor is an involuntary movement that can affect any part of the body. It appears as a shaking or slight movement most often seen in the hands or fingers. Tremors can be caused by medication side-effects or nervous system disorder. They are benign, but can interfere with daily functions.

Symptoms of tremors include:

  • Shaking body parts (head, hands, legs, arms, and/or fingers)
  • Shaky voice
  • Trouble writing with a steady hand
  • Trouble holding eating utensils
  • Postural tremor affecting the whole body when standing

7.       Chorea, Athetosis and Hemiballismus

Chorea is an unpredictable and jerky body movement that happens to one part of the body. They happen suddenly and can move to another body part chorea, which is often repetitive, but only lasts a brief moment.

Athetosis appears like a writhing flow of involuntary movement that tends to be continuous. It usually affects the fingers, toes, feet, and hands. Hemiballismus results in very jerky movements where it appears the person is “throwing” the body part in a flinging fashion. It is usually in an arm or a leg.


What Causes Involuntary Movements?

They can be caused by many different things. In most cases, there is some sort of neurological dysfunction where the brain or nerves signal the muscles incorrectly. In a small amount of cases, medication side-effects or injury can cause them. Causes are grouped by age group and include:


  • Brain injury from lack of oxygen at birth
  • Jaundice at birth
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Congenital conditions like Huntington’s chorea
  • Rheumatic fever
  • Neuroleptic medications


  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Huntington’s chorea
  • Street drug use
  • Neuroleptic medications
  • Brain tumor
  • Brain injury
  • Stroke
  • Seizures
  • Thyroid disease
  • Infections that affect the brain


Treatments for Involuntary Movements

Treatments usually involve treating the underlying condition that is causing the condition. This may include removing an offending medication or adding a medication to balance the brains dopamine levels. Dopamine is one of the chemicals in the brain that is responsible for sending signals to the muscles via the nervous system. Physical therapy may also be needed to help a patient manage daily life functions. 

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