Dystonia is a condition where a person has uncontrollable muscle movements in some part of their body. This happens because of faulty signals coming from their brain. Dystonia can range from a short-term or temporary concern to a lifelong issue. Most cases are treatable, especially cases with a treatable or curable underlying cause.
Dystonia is a nervous system disorder that causes uncontrollable muscle contractions, meaning a person’s muscles tense up without trying to make the muscles do so. Though it affects muscles, it’s actually an issue with your brain or another part of your nervous system.
The name “dystonia” is a combination of the Latin prefix “dys-,” and the Greek word “-tonos,” which refers to muscle tension. The combination of the two words describes a problem where your muscles tense up in a way that’s faulty or incorrect.
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Dyskinesia and dystonia are closely related but aren’t the same.
Depending on why it happens, anyone can develop dystonia. Some causes are age-specific, affecting people at birth or in childhood, while others are more likely to develop late in life.
The available research indicates that dystonia affects about 300,000 people in the United States. However, it’s difficult to know how common dystonia is because experts believe it’s underdiagnosed. That’s because dystonia can take so many different forms.
Dystonia is a brain condition that affects how your brain controls muscles throughout your body. This can affect muscles or groups of muscles in different ways. Exactly how and why this happens is still a mystery, though. The effects of dystonia can also worsen when you feel tired or stressed, or if you drink caffeine or alcohol.
Some types of dystonia happen because of genetic mutations or conditions that disrupt the way parts of your brain work. This can cause the affected cells to work incorrectly, leading to faulty signals reaching your muscles and causing dystonia’s effects.
Dystonia can also happen because of injuries or conditions that disrupt your brain function, and some of these conditions are visible on imaging scans or detectable with certain tests. But it can also happen for other reasons.
In general, the key symptom of dystonia is uncontrollable muscle movements. These movements are often:
There are also some slight differences in the symptoms depending on where dystonia happens in your body. There are five main ways that symptoms happen (with more about each below):
Focal dystonia only affects one part of your body, and experts estimate these cases are about 10 times more common than generalized dystonia cases. Depending on the body part affected, this can take different forms:
This affects two or more adjacent body parts, such as different parts of your face, your head and neck, or your hand and arm. The most common example of segmental dystonia is cervical dystonia, which affects muscles in your head and neck. Another example is Meige syndrome, which affects multiple parts of your face.
This affects two or more body parts that aren’t directly connected. An example of this is dystonia that affects both hands. Tardive dyskinesia is an example of multifocal dystonia when it affects more than one non-connected part of your body.
Hemidystonia gets its name partly from the Greek word “hemi,” which means “half.” In this context, it affects just half — one side — of your body. An example of this is uncontrollable muscle movements in the right side of your face and your right hand. Strokes are a key cause of hemidystonia.
This can involve your body’s leg and trunk (the main part of your body to which your arms, legs and head connect) or even your entire body. This can happen when dystonia is progressive, meaning it worsens over time. When focal dystonia turns into generalized dystonia, the symptoms spread from your limbs to the trunk of your body.
Dystonia happens because of disruptions in how your brain should function. It usually involves your basal ganglia, a group of brain structures that link many different brain areas and coordinate how those areas work together.
Experts organize the causes of dystonia into three categories: Primary, secondary and “dystonia plus” conditions.
Secondary dystonia can happen because of, or in connection with, a wide range of reasons:
Dystonia isn’t contagious, and you can’t spread it or catch it from others.
A healthcare provider, often a neurologist, can diagnose dystonia based on your symptoms, a neurological exam and various medical tests. Diagnosing dystonia is often tricky because its symptoms can happen with so many other conditions. That means it’s important to rule out those other conditions, some of which are life-threatening medical emergencies.
A wide range of lab, diagnostic and imaging tests are possible with dystonia. The most likely tests depend on your symptoms and what conditions healthcare providers suspect. Possible tests include, but aren’t limited to, the following:
Other tests are possible, so your healthcare provider is the best person to ask about the tests they recommend for your specific case. The information they provide will be the most accurate for your circumstances.
There’s no way to cure dystonia, but it might be treatable. Many possible treatments depend on the underlying cause or condition, or the symptoms you have. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you the treatment options they recommend in your specific situation.
Your healthcare provider may recommend that you avoid caffeine and alcohol. For some people, drinking beverages that contain either can make dystonia symptoms worse.
The possible medications or treatments for dystonia depend on why it’s happening and the specific symptoms you have. In general, the following treatment types are possible:
The complications and side effects possible with dystonia depend on several factors, starting with the treatments themselves. Your healthcare provider is the best person to explain what’s possible or likely for you because they can give you information that considers your circumstances.
Dystonia is a neurological problem, which means it isn’t something you can self-diagnose and self-treat. It’s also important to talk to your healthcare provider sooner than later because dystonia can happen with severe or life-threatening conditions.
The timeline for you to feel better and recover depends on why your dystonia happened, how severe it is, the treatments you received, any other health conditions you might have and more. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you about the likely timeline for you to feel better and recover.
Dystonia happens unpredictably, so you can’t prevent it. You also can’t reduce the risk of developing primary dystonia. That’s because you either inherit it or develop it for unknown reasons.
However, some causes of secondary dystonia are preventable, or you can reduce your risk of developing them. The things you can do include:
The outlook for dystonia depends on what caused it, when you develop it, where in your body it causes symptoms, your health history, the treatments you receive and more. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you more about the outlook for your case.
In general, primary dystonia tends to have a less-favorable outlook when it happens early in life. That’s because primary dystonia can progress from focal to generalized. The earlier in life you develop this condition, the further the condition can progress.
Focal dystonia tends to have a better outlook because it’s limited in how it affects your body. When dystonia affects multiple areas of your body, especially areas that aren’t directly connected, it’s usually because of more severe disruptions in your brain.
The outlook for secondary dystonia depends strongly on the condition causing it. When the underlying cause is a curable or reversible condition, there’s a much better likelihood of a good outcome. When it happens because of a chronic (long-term) condition, the odds of a good outcome go down. However, there are some chronic conditions where a good outcome and recovery from dystonia are still possible.
Primary dystonia is a lifelong condition once it develops. It’s treatable, but it isn’t curable and doesn’t go away on its own.
Secondary dystonia can be a short-term condition, depending on the underlying cause. This is more likely with conditions like infections, traumatic injuries and certain drugs. However, other factors can influence this, so your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you what you should expect in your case.
If you have dystonia, there may be some things you can do to take care of yourself, including:
If you have dystonia, you should see your healthcare provider for follow-up visits as recommended. You should also see them if your symptoms change or worsen, especially if the changes disrupt your life and routine. Also see them if medications or other treatments lose effectiveness or cause side effects that are difficult to deal with or disruptive.
You should go to the ER if you have any symptoms that could also happen with a stroke. To know when you need to call 911 (or your local emergency services number) because of stroke symptoms, remember to think FAST.
What dystonia feels like depends on what’s causing it, where it happens in your body, how severe it is and more. Dystonia can vary greatly from person to person, and what one person experiences with the same type of dystonia could be wildly different from what another person experiences.
For some people, dystonia causes minor symptoms, and the muscle movements feel like light fluttering or twitching. For others, the muscle movements are sharper, faster and may be uncomfortable or painful. Some types of dystonia cause muscle movements that feel like electric shocks.
The life expectancy with dystonia depends strongly on why it happens, if it happens in connection with any other conditions, your health history, the treatments you receive and more. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you more about whether or not dystonia affects your life expectancy and, if yes, how it will do so.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Dystonia is a brain condition that causes faulty signals to your muscles, which makes those muscles move uncontrollably. This condition can happen for many reasons, ranging from lifelong inherited conditions to short-term illnesses. The severity of the symptoms and how widespread the effects are in your body can make this condition a minor inconvenience, or they can be severely disruptive and keep you from doing certain things.
While it isn’t curable, dystonia is often treatable, especially with certain causes. In some cases, dystonia may go away entirely when it happens with short-term or curable conditions.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/20/2022.
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