What is dystonia?

Dystonia is a movement disorder that causes excessive muscle contractions. These muscle contractions are not under the control of the person (involuntary) and result in twisting movements that place the body in abnormal, sometimes painful postures.

Dystonia can affect one or more muscles in any area/multiple areas of the body, including the face, jaw, neck, eyelids, vocal cords, arms, hands, torso, legs and feet. The areas affected and the severity of the disorder vary from person to person.

Are there different types of dystonia?

Dystonia can be divided into three groups: idiopathic, genetic, and acquired.

Idiopathic dystonia is dystonia whose cause remains unknown. Many people with dystonia fall into this category.

Genetic dystonia is dystonia caused by inheriting (passed down from a parent) an abnormal gene.

Acquired dystonia (formerly called secondary dystonia) are those that develop from other factors that cause damage or degeneration of the brain. One of these other factors is other neurologic conditions, of which dystonia is a major symptom, such as:

Acquired dystonia also develops due to other factors including:

  • Exposure to certain medicines, such as dopamine-receptor blockers (used to treat acute and tardive dystonia).
  • Brain diseases, conditions, and infections, such as cerebral palsy, stroke, encephalitis, brain tumor, lack of oxygen to the brain, cerebrovascular disease, trauma to the brain.
  • Toxins (poisons) such as manganese, cyanide, and 3-nitroproprionic acid.

Who gets dystonia?

Anyone can get dystonia – men, women and children of all races and ethnic backgrounds. Approximately 250,000 people in the United States have dystonia. About one-third of people with dystonia are children. Dystonia is the third most common movement disorder, following essential tremor and Parkinson’s disease.

Patients whose symptoms begin under the age of 21 are more likely to experience dystonia throughout their whole body. Dystonia tends to begin in the upper body in patients whose dystonia begins after age 21.

What causes dystonia?

For many patients, the cause of dystonia is unknown. Of known causes, dystonia can occur due to:

  • Heredity (abnormal genes passed down from parents).
  • Birth injury.
  • Stroke.
  • Medications, including some antipsychotic and anti-nausea medications.
  • Neurological diseases, such as parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis.

What are the signs and symptoms of dystonia?

Signs and symptoms of dystonia include:

  • Muscle contractions that result in flexed or twisted movements and abnormal positions.
  • Pain that results from abnormal movements and postures.
  • Muscle movements and abnormal body positions that repeat, sometimes resembling a tremor.
  • Muscle movements that may begin in one area of the body and, in time, spread to other areas.
  • Muscle movements and abnormal postures that worsen with extended periods of exertion, fatigue or stress.
  • Voluntary muscle movement on one side of the body that cause dystonia symptoms on the opposite side.
  • Handwriting begins to be sloppy.
  • Foot cramps.
  • Dragging the foot after walking or running for a period of time.
  • Voice or speech difficulties.

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