It can be unsettling to see our loved ones displaying behaviors we don’t understand. If you’ve recently noticed a loved one moving strangely, it may or may not be a sign of something serious. Examples might include making strange faces, or not being able to keep their hands still.
It’s always good to support your loved ones’ health. But loved ones have an especially important role when it comes to involuntary movements. First, friends and family are often the first to notice when someone develops strange movements. Your loved one may be surprised when you mention this to them—which brings us to our second point: involuntary movements can be embarrassing for the person experiencing them. Be sure to be sensitive when bringing it up. Assure them that you don’t look at them differently because of it, and offer your support in finding a solution.
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 for your loved one to see a health care provider—and the sooner the better.
If your loved one already sees a doctor regularly, you can start there. Not all doctors have the most advanced knowledge about movement disorders, but they can help you find a specialist. (Some health insurance plans won’t let people 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. Your loved one might even do this unconsciously. Or, their symptoms might be situational—maybe they only do them in certain places, or when they’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 accompany your loved one to the doctor’s office, so you can help describe their movements. Better yet: try to record their 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. A common 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 loved one’s symptoms appeared after they started taking a medication, encourage them to talk to the doctor who prescribes that medication about what they 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