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What Is a Tetanic Contraction?

By J.M. Willhite
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A tetanic contraction is a painful, spastic muscle contraction associated with tetanus infection. Tetanic contractions can vary in severity and affect muscles throughout the body. Muscular injury and fractures can occur if the contractions are severe. Treatment to alleviate tetanic contraction usually involves antibiotics and surgery. If the contractions are not properly treated, death can occur.

Tetanus infection, also known as lockjaw, is caused by exposure to Clostridium tetani (C. tetani), a bacterium commonly found in dirt. An exposed wound is the most common point of entry for the bacterium. After entering the body, the bacterium introduces tetanospasmin, a toxin that inhibits nerve and muscle function initiating a tetanized state.

Tetanospasmin blocks nerve signals inhibiting motor neuron function. When nerve signals become scrambled or intermittent, the motor neurons can become overstimulated by the mixed communication. Persistent overstimulation causes the muscles to contract without release; episodes can last a few seconds or upward of several minutes. Once nerve signals return to normal, contractions subside and the affected muscles relax.

Tetanic contractions frequently affect the jaw, hence, the moniker lockjaw. Drooling commonly occurs with jaw contractions. Muscles in the neck, torso, back and limbs may also contract. A severe, prolonged tetanic contraction can cause muscles to stretch to the point of tearing and, when affecting the back, place the spine at risk for fracture.

Additional signs and symptoms can accompany a tetanic contraction. Individuals experiencing one in the neck and torso may have difficulty swallowing and breathing. It is not uncommon for individuals with tetanic contraction and infection to develop stiffness, fever and malaise. In the midst of a contraction, some may have an elevated heart rate and blood pressure. Personality changes, such as irritability, may also occur.

If tetanic contractions are allowed to progress without treatment, vital body functions can be quickly placed in jeopardy. For instance, tetanic contractions can compromise one’s ability to breathe, putting him or her at risk for heart attack. Prolonged oxygen deprivation may also increase the probability of irreversible brain damage. Another complication associated with tetanic contractions affecting the torso includes an increased risk for pneumonia, which can be fatal.

Treatment for a tetanic contraction involves eliminating the toxic infection from the body. Antibiotic medications are given to clear infection and, in some cases, tetanus immune globulin is administered to counteract the tetanospasmin. Muscle relaxing and sedative medications may be used to ease contractions and promote rest. Surgery is usually performed to clear out infection, puss and any foreign matter that may have entered the wound.

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Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On Apr 10, 2013

Tetanus often gets used in literature as a kind of ironic way for someone great to die. Because it can happen from such a slight wound, from someone carelessly stepping on a nail or something like that, when it happens to someone who has cheated death in other ways it seems all the more tragic.

By Mor — On Apr 10, 2013

@bythewell - Yeah, unfortunately, it's not like smallpox or other diseases which can be eliminated completely if everyone makes the effort. It originates from animal feces, so anywhere with manure in the ground (even bird poo, which could be anywhere) can be infected and transfer into a person with a cut. So it's never going away.

We're really lucky that we have a way to fight it, because for thousands of years of history, people would just get it and die, in an extremely painful way.

But, even though getting it isn't the complete death sentence it used to be (although it's still very possible) the disease is still incredibly painful. Much more painful than going to get a shot when you're supposed to.

By bythewell — On Apr 09, 2013

It is so important to keep your tetanus shots up to date. I didn't realize that they need to be renewed every seven to ten years or so, but they do.

It was explained to me when I had to go in to the emergency room to get something stitched up. They gave me a booster shot but explained that it might not be enough, because it takes a while for the shot to work. So I had to make sure I monitored my health, since I was at risk of developing it. And people still die of it all the time, partly because it develops so quickly.

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