Did you know that my body will shake uncontrollably? Yes, it’s true, and if you see me in public it’s possible you’ve been a witness. My legs will shake, bounce, or extend, my wrists will flex or shake, my triceps will spaz, or my core muscles will pull me back in to my seat. I will have these muscle spasms multiple times throughout the day. It might sound annoying to you but for me, it’s a part of my life. Spasticity is a side effect of paralysis and it can range from mild to severe. It is very common with incomplete or cervical level injuries, and unfortunately/fortunately I fit under both categories (I included fortunately because it actually can help with my independence, I’ll get to that part soon).
Muscle spasms are a form of communication that happens below the level of injury, but once the communication is initiated (i.e. stretching my leg), the message is interrupted from the damaged area of your injury. The spinal cord attempts to interpret the message and sends a response. This response is typically an over exaggerated muscle movement, like shaking and sharp movements.
There are treatments for spasticity. A typical treatment can be done at physical therapy which is stretching and range of motion. The most common medicine is baclofen, diazepam or Zanaflex. Personally, I take a low, daily dose of baclofen. I don’t “need” baclofen, but it is a safety precaution as an independent driver, so I won’t shake while driving. Other treatments include Botox injections or a surgically implanted baclofen pump. I have some SCI friends who use a refillable pump as a treatment for severe muscle spasms. This pump applies medicine to the spinal cord area which is causing the spasms. Because of this treatment solution, my friends can live an independent life.
On the opposite side of treatment is the benefit of muscle spasms. I use my muscle spasms to live independently. It sounds weird but let me explain. In my seven years of spasticity I have learned how to control my mild spasms to pick up objects with my hand. If I bend or lean forward just enough, I can trigger a spasm in my hand which performs a strong pinch to grab items. I use it when I’m grocery shopping or completing a simple task like grabbing a tissue out of the tissue box. If you try to grab a tissue right now while you’re reading this, do you feel the resistance as you pull a tissue? If I didn’t have a muscle spasm, I wouldn’t have a strong enough pinch to grab that tissue. I can use the spasms to grab books off my bookshelf or pick up my phone.
The downside of my muscle spasms is the strong ones. Most the time, when I’m sleeping, my muscles become tight and if I move, my legs spaz into an uncomfortable position. Unfortunately, I am stuck in that uncomfortable position until I have assistance. Other times, I’ll be sitting in my chair and my spasms will move my hips out of place. Once again, this uncomfortable position will cause pain. At this point of my life, I must think what is worth the pain. Is this pain too much or is it doable? Do I risk my independence? Do I increse my medicine, or do I sacrifice the pain?