Tetany

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What is tetany?

Tetany is a symptom characterized by muscle cramps, spasms or tremors. These repetitive actions of the muscles happen when your muscle contracts 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 create low calcium levels, which may cause tetany. Pregnancy, breastfeeding, malnutrition, vitamin D deficiency, and some medications may also cause hypocalcemia, leading to tetany.

In some cases, tetany may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have slurred speech and other serious symptoms, such as changes in consciousness, vomiting, severe headache, and changes in mood, personality and behavior.

If your tetany is persistent or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with tetany?

Tetany may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the muscles may also involve other body systems.

Common symptoms that may occur along with tetany

Tetany may accompany other symptoms including:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, tetany may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have tetany along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Fainting or change in level of consciousness or lethargy
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Loss of vision or changes in vision
  • Paralysis
  • Seizures
  • Severe headache
  • Slurred speech
  • Sudden difficulty with memory, thinking, talking, comprehension, writing or reading
  • Sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body
  • Vomiting

What causes tetany?

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.

Common causes of tetany

Common causes of tetany include:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Alkalosis (elevated pH of the blood)
  • Hyperventilation
  • Hypocalcemia
  • Hypoparathyroidism (underactive parathyroid glands)
  • Malnutrition
  • Medication side effects
  • Pancreatitis
  • 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 should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of tetany

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your tetany including:

  • How long have you experienced tetany?
  • How severe is the tetany?
  • What part of your body is affected by the tetany?
  • Is your 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, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Brain damage
  • Kidney failure
  • Organ failure or dysfunction
  • Paralysis
  • Unconsciousness and coma
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 1
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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.
  1. Muscle cramps. MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003193.htm
  2. Muscle cramp. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00200
  3. Hannan FM, Thakker RV. Investigating hypocalcaemia. BMJ 2013; 346:f2213