About Dystonia

What is Dystonia?

(taken from the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation)

Dystonia is a neurological movement disorder that causes muscles in the body to contract or spasm involuntarily.  The involuntary muscle contractions cause twisting, repetitive, and patterned movements as well as abnormal postures.

Dystonia is not a single disease but a syndrome—a set of symptoms that cannot be attributed to a single cause but share common elements.  Although the outward appearances of the various forms of dystonia may appear very different, they all share the element of repetitive, patterned, and often twisting involuntary muscle movements.

Dystonia affects men, women, and children of all ages and backgrounds.  Dystonia may be genetic or caused by factors such as physical trauma, exposure to certain medications, or other neurological conditions.

Dystonia is the third most common movement disorder after Parkinson’s disease and tremor.  Dystonia is neither a psychological disorder, nor does it affect intellect.  Dystonia is not fatal, but it is a chronic disorder that causes varying degrees of disability and pain, from mild to severe.

Most Common Forms of Dystonia

Dystonia can be generalized (throughout the body) or focal (affecting one part of the body).

Generalized dystonia affects many parts of the body simultaneously.  It causes camping and twisting in the feet, limbs, and torso.

The most common focal dystonias include:

  • Blepharospasm affects the muscles of the eyelids, forcing the eyes to blink excessively or remain closed.  Although vision remains normal, the muscle spasms may eventually render the patient unable to see.
  • Cervical dystonia (spasmodic torticollis) affects muscles in the neck and shoulders.  The muscle spasms can be painful and cause the neck to twist to one side, forward, or backward.  The neck may pull, turn, or jerk.  The neck may be held in a fixed position.
  • Oromandibular dystonia causes the muscles of the lower face to pull of contract.  Sometimes the jaw muscles pull the mouth open or closed involuntarily.  The tongue may be affected.  When oromandibular dystonia occurs with blepharospasm, the condition is called the Meige’s syndrome.
  • Spasmodic Dysphonia involves muscles inside the larynx or voice box.  These muscle spasms may force the vocal cords together, causing a strained or strangled voice, or hold the vocal cords apart, causing a breathy whispered voice.
  • Writer’s cramp is a type of occupational (or “task-specific”) dystonia that is triggered by a specific action or movement.  Writer’s cramp causes the hand and forearm muscles to contract dudring the act of writing.  When the writing instrument is released from the hand, the hand generally relaxes.  occupational dystonias may affect professional musicians and persons in a wide variety or situations that require specific, repetitive movements.

How is Dystonia Diagnosed?

There is no specific laboratory test that indicates if a person has dystonia.  Instead, the diagnosis of dystonia comes from a neurological examination.  Therefore, in order to correctly diagnose dystonia, a doctor must be able to recognize the physical signs and be familiar with the symptoms.

Treatment for Dystonia

The group Care4Dystonia has compiled a thorough list of treatments available for patients with Dystonia.  Go to their newly-redesigned website, scroll to the bottom of the page, where you will see “Care and Treatment” and each of the treatments listed.

Links and Further Reading

What is Dystonia?  From the Bachmann Strauss Dystonia-Parkinson’s Foundation. Downloadable PDF with information to give to family members.

Care4Dystonia Library.  A very thorough listing of books and videos available for patients and their caregivers.

Also please check our Links page for more informative links.


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