Hypertonia (Stiff Muscle Tone)

Hypertonia in a baby describes too much muscle tone. Muscles are stiff, causing difficulty moving arms and legs, for example.

Hypertonia in a baby is essentially the opposite of hypotonia. Hypotonia, or floppy baby syndrome, describes too little muscle tone. The stiffness of hypertonia is less common in newborns than hypotonia.

Damaged areas of the brain or spinal cord that send signals to the muscles can cause hypertonia. Potential causes of hypertonia in a baby include:

  • Structural abnormalities or brain injury, such as cerebral palsy
  • Meningoencephalitis, or inflammation of the brain
  • Increased pressure inside the skull that can be caused by congenital tumors, stroke or restricted flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain
  • Genetic defects or other metabolic abnormalities

Hypertonia caused by cerebral palsy doesn’t progress over time, while other conditions can cause the stiffness to worsen. Mild hypertonia can have little or no effect on health. Moderate hypertonia can cause falls and joint contractures. Hypertonia can be so severe that it causes immobility.

Spasticity describes a type of hypertonia in which movement increases muscle spasms and exaggerated reflexes. Rigidity is a type of hypertonia in which the muscle stiffness is unchanged whether there is movement or not. Dystonia is characterized by involuntary muscle contractions.

More families in Louisville and Southern Indiana choose Norton Children’s Neuroscience Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, than any other pediatric neuroscience care provider. Our board-certified and fellowship-trained neurologists have state-of-the-art tools and training to evaluate your child’s condition.

Skill and experience in determining the cause of hypertonia allows for earlier treatment. Neurologists work closely with Norton Children’s Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, to help kids with hypertonia live their best lives.

Hypertonia Treatment

The multidisciplinary teams with Norton Children’s Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, Norton Children’s Neuroscience Institute and Norton Children’s Orthopedics of Louisville, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, use a range of treatments for spasticity, including physical therapy, medication and surgery.

Exercise and physical therapy can help a child with hypertonia retain as much movement as possible.

Physical therapists treat hypertonia in babies with prescribed exercise and hands-on care. Casting to hold the limb in a stretched position for six hours or more can provide greater range of motion. Sometimes, serial casting is used in conjunction with Botox injections that temporarily weaken the muscle.

In cases where spasticity interferes with quality of life and isn’t controlled with other measures, baclofen (a muscle relaxer) can be delivered directly to the cerebrospinal fluid through an implanted pump.

  • The Norton Children’s Hospital Comprehensive Epilepsy Center is a Level 4 epilepsy center, the highest rating available from the National Association of Epilepsy Centers. Norton Children’s Hospital has held this designation since 2013.

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  • As the first to use many diagnostic tools and treatments, specialists with Norton Children’s Neuroscience Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, have extensive experience in areas such as pediatric neurostimulation, immune-mediated neurological disorders, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-guided laser ablation surgery and virtual reality brain imaging.
  • Regional neurology care is available for children across Kentucky and Southern Indiana. Our specialists are available at clinics in Bowling Green, Campbellsville, Corbin, Elizabethtown, Frankfort, Owensboro and Paducah, Kentucky; and Evansville, Indiana. Telemedicine visits also are available.
  • Many neuroscience patients benefit from treatment by a range of specialists. To allow families to schedule multiple visits in the same day with a broad range of views from specialists, we offer multidisciplinary clinics:
  • Our neuropsychology specialists evaluate children and teens with a variety of neurological, neurodevelopmental and medical conditions, including brain tumors and epilepsy.
  • Communicate with your child’s neuroscience and other health care providers, get test results, schedule appointments, refill prescriptions and more with a free MyNortonChart account.
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