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Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Physician Vong U Chan and Dr Eki Wari on February 21, 2023

Stiff Person Syndrome: Understanding Celine Dion’s Disease

In 2022, Celine Dion announced her diagnosis of stiff person syndrome, which causes pain and board-like stiffness throughout the body. Read more about this mysterious disorder and how to treat it here.

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At the end of 2022, singer Celine Dion announced she had been diagnosed with stiff person syndrome, prompting concern among her fans. The rare neurological disorder is incurable and causes muscles to spasm or become stiff as a board.

The spasms can occur if a person is surprised, moves suddenly, or is exposed to cold temperatures. In some cases, emotional stress, certain exercises, and even touch can provoke symptoms.

Luckily, treatment can help reduce the severity of symptoms and improve quality of life. Read on to learn more about stiff person syndrome and natural remedies that help.

What Is Stiff Person Syndrome?

A woman sitting in a chair at her desk experiencing back pain and stiffness
SPS is a disorder that causes pain and stiffness in various muscles throughout the body,

Stiff person syndrome (SPS) is an autoimmune neurological disorder that causes muscle pain, stiffness, and spasms that come and go over time.

Symptoms typically depend on what type of SPS a person has. The main types are:

  • Classic: Most people with SPS have this kind. It causes spasms and stiffness in the legs more than arms, lower back, and sometimes the abdomen.
  • Partial: People with this type of SPS have spasms and stiffness in one part of their body, such as in one leg.
  • Plus: This is best described as a combination of classic SPS (muscle pain and stiffness) along with symptoms that suggest brainstem or cerebellar dysfunction.

SPS is most common in women and people aged 40 to 50. However, it can happen in older adults and children.

Symptoms

Stiff person syndrome spasms usually begin in the legs and back. They can also occur in the abdomen, and less commonly in the upper body, arms, face, and neck.

Muscles can appear stiff and board-like in areas where the spasms occur. These spasms can lead to:

  • Difficulty walking, where the affected person might space their feet wider apart to balance themselves
  • Stiff or rigid posture
  • Shortness of breath if spasms are located in the chest
  • Falling and unsteadiness due to stiffness in the legs
  • Chronic pain
  • A curve in the lower back due to muscle tightness, spine misalignments, and spinal cord compression
  • Anxiety due to pain and falls caused by the spasms

Less common symptoms may include lack of coordination, double vision, eye movement problems, and speech issues.

Stiff person syndrome, according to TCM

A woman having a leg cramp after running on a track
Certain exercises, exposure to cold temperatures, and even touch can provoke SPS muscle cramps.

We asked Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Physician Vong U Chan to explain stiff person syndrome from a TCM perspective.

She said that throughout the history of TCM there has been no recordings of this specific SPS illness. However, there have been recordings of muscle spasms and muscle cramps.

“In TCM, cramps are a result of muscle and tendon problems caused by both external and internal origins. Our Liver stores blood and rules tendons, the Spleen dominates limbs and rules muscles, and our Kidney rules bones. When these three organs are weakened, muscles and tendons become malnourished and it leads to muscle spasms in the limbs.

TCM Physician Vong U Chan

External pathogens such as Coldness, Dampness or sports injuries further disrupt blood and qi flow along the meridian paths, which can induce muscle cramps, too.

The syndromes most commonly associated with such chronic muscle cramps as observed in SPS are Liver and Kidney Yin Deficiency and Liver Blood Deficiency.

Liver Yin Deficiency may trigger a tendency of Liver Yang ascending. This is called “Liver-Yang stirs up the Wind” or “Liver-Yang turns to Wind,” which can develop into Liver-Wind syndrome.

Similar to the symptoms of SPS, the symptoms of Liver-Wind are characterized by tremors or spasms of the limbs, severe dizziness, nausea, vomiting, tingling or numbness of the limbs, and loss of balance in standing or walking.

Can Stiff Person Syndrome Be Prevented?

From a TCM perspective, since the main organs related to muscle spasms are the Liver, Kidney and Spleen, taking good care of these three organs can help prevent muscle spasms.

“Get sufficient good quality rest, eat a balanced and nutritious diet, and exercise regularly to strengthen the muscles. Include stretches in your exercise and lifestyle routine, manage your stress levels, and avoid smoking, alcohol, spicy food, and rage, which can contribute to Liver-Yang rising. Reduce exposure to cold temperatures, especially cold water.”  

TCM Physician Vong U Chan

It should be noted that these treatments might prevent the progression of the disease, but there are no ways to avoid getting the disease in the first place.

Stiff Person Syndrome Treatment Options

No cure has been discovered yet for stiff person syndrome, but the symptoms can be managed.

TCM treatment for leg cramps aims to reinforce internal organs, free the activities of blood and qi, and nourish and loosen muscles and tendons of the legs. The remedies are chosen according to individual conditions. Physicians will identify the symptoms and body signs of each patient to diagnose the body imbalances. 

“To subdue Liver-Yang and extinguish Liver-Wind, some common herbs are Abalone Shell, Dragon Bone, Oyster Shell, and Nacre. It is considered in TCM that insect-based herbs, such as Earthworm and Silkworms, can enter the Liver meridian and open meridians and collaterals to extinguish Wind and relieve spasms.”  

TCM Physician Vong U Chan

It is also very important to nourish Liver yin and blood. Some common TCM herbal formulas used are:  

  • Da Ding Feng Zhu: Nourishes yin, calms Internal Wind, and extinguishes Endogenous Wind  
  • Qi Ju Di Huang Wan: Nourishes Kidney and Liver Yin  
  • Shao Yao Gan Cao Tang: Soothes the sinews, nourishes yin and Blood, soothes the tendons, regulates the meridians, and eases pain

American ginseng and Tian Qi capsules can be taken to help manage pain, reduce swelling and promote blood flow.

Acupressure and massage

Acupuncture and moxibustion can effectively suppress hyperactive muscles and treat muscle cramps. The common body acupoints used are:  

  • He Gu (LI4)
  • San Yin Jiao (SP6)
  • Tai Xi (KI3)
  • Tai Chong (LR3)

Massaging stiff, painful muscles with an anti-inflammatory herbal massage oil can help stimulate blood flow to ease symptoms.

Seek Help If You Have Similar Symptoms

Do you experience pain and stiffness in your muscles? If so, talk to your doctor about stiff person syndrome. Use the tips in this guide to help manage the pain.

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