Tetany: A Guide

Medically Reviewed By Nancy Hammond, M.D.
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Tetany is a symptom characterized by muscle cramps, spasms, or tremors. These repetitive actions happen when your muscles contract uncontrollably. Tetany may occur in any muscle in your body, such as those in your face, fingers, or calves. The muscle cramping associated with tetany can be long lasting and painful. A common cause of tetany is very low levels of calcium in the body. The medical term for low calcium is “hypocalcemia.” There are many causes of hypocalcemia that can lead to tetany, and these different causes can vary widely in severity.

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 and other symptoms

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Tetany involves cramps, spasms, or tremors in any muscle in the body. This happens because the muscles are contracting uncontrollably.

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:

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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:

Trousseau’s sign

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.

What causes tetany?

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:

Learn more about calcium deficiency here.

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?

What are the potential complications of tetany?

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
  • paralysis
  • unconsciousness and coma

Treatment for tetany

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
  • age
  • overall health
  • personal choice

Treatment typically involves taking calcium supplements and activated vitamin D.
Vitamin D supplements to boost calcium levels include:

  • calcitriol
  • ergocalciferol
  • alfacalcidol

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.

Preventing tetany

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:

  • yogurt
  • orange juice
  • cheese
  • sardines
  • milk, including soy milk
  • tofu
  • salmon
  • spinach
  • 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.

Summary

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.

Tetany can occur due to nutritional deficiencies in vitamin D or calcium, pregnancy, certain medications, or certain conditions, such as kidney disease.

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.

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Medical Reviewer: Nancy Hammond, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 28
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.