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Tetanus (cont.)

Tetanus Symptoms and Signs

The hallmark feature of tetanus is muscle rigidity and spasms. The median incubation period is seven days with a range from about four to 14 days. The shorter the incubation period, usually the more severe are the symptoms.

Picture of opisthotonus or arched back due to muscle spasms in a person with generalized tetanus
Figure 2: Picture of opisthotonus or arched back due to muscle spasms in a person with generalized tetanus. Source: CDC
  • In generalized tetanus, the initial complaints may include any of the following:
    • Irritability, muscle cramps, sore muscles, weakness, or difficulty swallowing are commonly seen.
    • Facial muscles are often affected first. Trismus or lockjaw is most common. This condition results from spasms of the jaw muscles that are responsible for chewing. A sardonic smile -- medically termed risus sardonicus -- is a characteristic feature that results from facial muscle spasms.
    • Muscle spasms are progressive and may include a characteristic arching of the back known as opisthotonus (Figure 2). Muscle spasms may be intense enough to cause bones to break and joints to dislocate.
    • Severe cases can involve spasms of the vocal cords or muscles involved in breathing. If this happens, death is likely, unless medical help (mechanical ventilation with a respirator) is readily available.

  • In cephalic tetanus, in addition to lockjaw, weakness of at least one other facial muscle occurs. In two-thirds of these cases, generalized tetanus will develop.
  • In localized tetanus, muscle spasms occur at or near the site of the injury. This condition can progress to generalized tetanus.
  • Neonatal tetanus is identical to generalized tetanus except that it affects the newborn infant. Neonates may be irritable and have poor sucking ability or difficulty swallowing.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/6/2015

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The word tetanus comes from the Greek tetanos, which is derived from the term teinein, meaning to stretch.

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