Tetany: A Guide
Serious causes of tetany include severe diarrhea and kidney disease. Problems with your thyroid or pancreas can also create low calcium levels, which may cause tetany. Pregnancy, breastfeeding, malnutrition, vitamin D deficiency, and some medications may also cause hypocalcemia, leading to tetany.
Read on to learn more about tetany, including its symptoms, causes, and treatment options.
Tetany may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the muscles may also involve other body systems.
Symptoms that may occur along with tetany
Tetany may accompany other symptoms, including:
- abdominal pain or cramping
- chronic or persistent diarrhea
- malaise or lethargy
- muscle aches or pain
- rapid breathing or shortness of breath
- tingling or other unusual sensations in the hands or feet
- twitching or shaking of the fingers
Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition
In some cases, tetany may occur with other symptoms that may indicate a serious condition that requires immediate evaluation in an emergency setting.
Seek immediate medical care by calling 911 if you or someone you are with has tetany along with other serious symptoms, including:
- fainting, a change in the level of consciousness, or lethargy
- a loss of muscle coordination
- a loss of vision or changes in vision
- a severe headache
- slurred speech
- sudden difficulty with memory, thinking, talking, comprehension, writing, or reading
- sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body
Trousseau’s sign occurs when the muscles of the forearm and wrist spasm due to pressure on the brachial artery, which is the main blood vessel in the arm.
A doctor may block this artery with a blood pressure cuff. If the arm starts to spasm, Trousseau’s sign is present.
Trousseau’s sign can help identify tetany in people who may not have noticed it before but who have suspected hypocalcemia.
Tetany happens because of very low calcium levels in the body. The medical term for low calcium is “hypocalcemia.” There are many causes of hypocalcemia that can lead to tetany.
Causes of tetany
Causes of hypocalcemia and tetany include:
- alcohol misuse
- elevated pH of the blood
- underactive parathyroid glands
- medication side effects
- pregnancy and breastfeeding
- vitamin D deficiency
Serious or life threatening causes of tetany
In some cases, tetany may be a symptom of a serious or life threatening condition that needs immediate evaluation in an emergency setting. These conditions include:
Questions for diagnosing the cause of tetany
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed healthcare practitioner will ask you several questions related to your tetany, including:
- How long have you been experiencing tetany?
- How severe is the tetany?
- What part of your body is the tetany affecting?
- Is the tetany recurrent?
- Do you have any other symptoms?
- What medications are you taking?
Because tetany can be due to a serious condition, not seeking treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage.
Once your doctor has identified the underlying cause, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your healthcare professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications. Such complications may include:
- brain damage
- kidney failure
- organ failure or dysfunction
- unconsciousness and coma
When treating the hypocalcemia that has caused tetany, your doctor will try to raise the levels of calcium in the blood or urine enough to stop symptoms but not enough to cause unusually high levels.
Treatment may vary based on a person’s:
- symptom severity
- specific symptoms
- overall health
- personal choice
Treatment typically involves taking calcium supplements and activated vitamin D.
Vitamin D supplements to boost calcium levels include:
People who have hypocalcemia because of low magnesium levels may receive magnesium supplements.
Sometimes, people need to receive supplementation through an IV line, which is a tube inserted into a vein.
When tetany develops due to an underlying condition, it may not be possible to prevent it.
However, you may be able to prevent hypocalcemia by ensuring that you have an adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D in your diet.
Good dietary sources of calcium include:
- orange juice
- milk, including soy milk
- fortified products
Always contact your doctor before trying any new supplements. Some may have adverse effects in people who have certain conditions, take certain medications, or have other circumstances.
Learn more about taking calcium supplements here.
Tetany is a symptom of low calcium levels. Someone who is experiencing tetany will have cramps, spasms, or tremors in any muscle in their body. These are uncontrollable, and they may last a long time and become painful.
It is important to seek medical attention immediately if you notice tetany. It is usually possible to resolve this symptom by addressing the underlying cause.