What Is Stereotypic Movement Disorder?

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What Is Stereotypic Movement Disorder?

Stereotypic movement disorder, also known as motor stereotypies, is a condition characterized by repetitive, rhythmic, involuntary movements, such as head banging, hand waving, or body rocking.

While the movements, known as stereotypies, don’t seem to have a specific purpose, they occur in predictable patterns and parts of the body. The episodes may appear several times a day, and last for seconds or minutes. They may interfere with the person’s ability to function or cause them to hurt themselves.

This article explores the symptoms, types, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of stereotypic movement disorder.

Symptoms of Stereotypic Movement Disorder

The symptoms of this condition typically start to appear within the first three years of a child’s life. They may fade with time or continue into adulthood.

The symptoms may include movements such as:

  • Body rocking
  • Arm waving
  • Hand flapping
  • Finger wiggling
  • Hair twisting
  • Head nodding
  • Head banging
  • Thumb sucking
  • Nail biting
  • Hitting oneself
  • Mouthing objects
  • Biting oneself

In adults, the symptoms can include:

  • Leg shaking
  • Face touching
  • Nail biting
  • Hand tapping
  • Body rocking
  • Hair twisting
  • Playing or fidgeting with objects like pens 

The symptoms may be more likely to appear when the person is excited, stressed, fatigued, frustrated, bored, or engrossed. They may recede when the person is distracted.

Types of Stereotypic Movement Disorder

There are three types of stereotypic movement disorder:

  • Common: Common motor stereotypies can include thumb sucking, nail or lip biting, body rocking, hair twirling, teeth grinding, jaw clenching, head banging, or self biting. This type of stereotypic movement disorder is not well-defined and may overlap with common childhood habits. The symptoms often improve as the child gets older.
  • Head nodding: Children with this type of stereotypic movement disorder typically nod their heads either from side to side, up to down, or shoulder to shoulder. The head nods may be accompanied by movements of the hand and feet, or upgaze eye deviations (where the eyes tend to roll upward).
  • Complex motor stereotypies (CMS): Complex motor stereotypies can include finger wiggling, arm or hand flapping or waving, or opening, closing, or rotating the hands. The movements will likely occur on both hands simultaneously. They may be accompanied by head posturing, mouth opening, pacing, or hopping. They typically appear within the first three years of age and persist.

Causes of Stereotypic Movement Disorder

There are two categories of stereotypic movement disorder:

  • Primary motor stereotypies: This is when a child who is developing normally displays stereotypic movement disorder. Though this type is fairly common, its causes are unknown.
  • Secondary motor stereotypies: This is when motor stereotypies occur in a child who also has other developmental conditions such as autism, mental retardation, or impaired vision or hearing.

These are some factors that may play a role in the development of stereotypic movement disorder:

  • Genetic factors: Stereotypic movement disorder may be genetic, as some children who develop it have family members who had the condition when they were young.
  • Brain conditions or injuries: The condition may be caused by brain injuries or neurological problems in childhood.
  • Developmental conditions: Developmental conditions like autism can cause a child to develop secondary motor stereotypies. 
  • Gender: Boys may be more likely to develop stereotypic movement disorder than girls.

Additionally, using certain stimulant drugs like cocaine or amphetamines may cause short but severe bursts of movements. Long-term use of stimulant drugs can lead to longer episodes of movements. The movements cease when the person stops using drugs.

Diagnosing Stereotypic Movement Disorder

If your child is repeatedly making odd movements, you should take them to their pediatrician for an examination and diagnosis.

The diagnosis process for stereotypic movement disorder may involve: 

  • Questions about the child’s symptoms and health, including descriptions of the movements and what causes them to start and stop
  • A detailed personal and family medical history
  • A physical examination
  • Psychological tests
  • Other tests to rule out conditions such as autism, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), chorea disorders, tourette syndrome, or other tic disorders

Treating Stereotypic Movement Disorder

Treatment for stereotypic movement disorder may vary depending on the person’s age, the specific symptoms they face, and the causes of the disorder.

Movements that affect the person’s ability to function or cause them to harm themselves may require treatment. On the other hand, movements that don’t cause any problems may not require treatment, particularly if they’re primary motor stereotypies and are not accompanied by another health condition.

Treatment may involve therapy, medication, or other interventions.

Therapy

Behavioral therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy may be able to help with stereotypic movement disorder:

  • Behavior therapy: Behavior therapy can help the person recognize the patterns in their movements and offer positive reinforcement to help the person reduce or stop the movements. 
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can help the person change unhelpful patterns of thinking; however, it may not be helpful in very young children.

Medication

Medication may be prescribed for children who don’t respond to therapy, to help reduce the symptoms. 

However, it’s important to note that there aren’t any specific medications to treat this condition, so the use of medication is rare. Further research is required to develop effective medication to treat this condition.

Other Interventions

If the person is at risk of hurting themselves, it may be helpful to change their environment to make it safer for them. 

A Word From Verywell

If your child has stereotypic movement disorder, you may worry about whether they’ll be able to cope with school and be able to make friends. Discuss your concerns with your child’s healthcare provider and they can help you take actionable next steps.

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2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Katherine M. Stereotypic movement disorders. Semin Pediatr Neurol. 2018;25:19-24. doi:10.1016/j.spen.2017.12.004

  2. Shukla T, Pandey S. Stereotypies in adults: a systematic review. Neurol Neurochir Pol. 2020;54(4):294-304. doi:10.5603/PJNNS.a2020.0058

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