It’s uncomfortable to feel out of control, especially of your own body. Many people experience uncontrollable movements of one kind or another: maybe you can’t stop making faces, or your hands keep shaking. Uncontrollable movements like this come with a lot of emotions—it’s frustrating to not be able to control yourself. You might feel embarrassed when other people see it. If it started suddenly, or recently became worse, you might feel anxious about what’s going to happen next. Will it ever go away? Will it get worse?
It’s okay to be frustrated, scared, embarrassed, or any other emotion. You don’t need to panic—but it’s a good idea to take involuntary movements seriously. There are a lot of different reasons why this might be happening, and what you can do about it depends on the cause.
Finding the cause
Figuring out exactly what’s going on can be tough. There are lots of different reasons why people develop uncontrollable movements.
It could be a nervous tic you developed, or it could be a sign of any of dozens of movement disorders based in the brain. You’ve probably heard of a few, like Parkinson’s Disease. But a lot of them have obscure names that you’ve probably never heard of. You can try to do some research online, but you may have a very hard time narrowing down exactly what’s going on. It’s best to see a health care provider—and the sooner the better.
But who should you see? If you already see a doctor, you can start there. Your regular family doctor might not have the most advanced knowledge about movement disorders, but they can refer you to a specialist. (Some health insurance plans won’t let you see a specialist without a referral from a primary care doctor anyway.) That specialist is most likely going to be a neurologist—someone who treats conditions related to the brain.
There’s another challenge though: visits to the doctor’s office are usually pretty short—about 15 minutes or so. Many people with movement disorders can hide their symptoms for longer than that. You might unconsciously hide your symptoms from your doctor. Or, your symptoms might be situational—maybe you only do them in certain places, or when you’re very tired, etc. This can make it hard for the doctor to figure out what’s going on.
Unfortunately, sometimes people have a hard time getting health care professionals to take their symptoms seriously in a situation like this. If possible, try to bring someone along with you who has seen your movements and can help you describe them to the doctor. Better yet: try to record your movements on video, so you can show the doctor what the movements look like.
Uncontrollable movements and mental health
Sometimes uncontrollable movements can be related to mental health disorders:
- People with schizophrenia often move in ways that other people find strange or disturbing—or they don’t move at all for long periods of time.
- People who are depressed often move very slowly, almost as if they were walking underwater.
- Anxiety disorders can make it difficult to sit still.
- People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may repeat certain movements, like squinting hard or twitching.
Movement disorders can also appear as a side effect of mental health medications. One example is tardive dyskinesia (TD), which is a side effect of antipsychotic medications. People with TD experience involuntary, jerky, irregular movements of the tongue, lips, face, trunk, arms, legs, hands, and/or feet. If your symptoms appeared after you started taking a medication, talk to the doctor who prescribes that medication about what you should do. TD is treatable, and so are many other movement disorders!
- Lees, A. (2002). Odd and unusual movement disorders. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 72, pp. i17-i21. Retrieved from https://jnnp.bmj.com/content/72/suppl_1/i17