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What is Dystonia?

Dystonia is a neurological movement disorder and is the term used to describe uncontrollable and sometimes painful muscle spasms caused by incorrect signals from the brain. It is estimated to affect at least 70,000 people in the UK.

How does Dystonia affect the nervous system?

Dystonia disrupts the nervous systems ability to allow the brain and the muscles to communicate with each other. The basal ganglia are the area of the brain that is believed to be most affected by dystonia. This is a deep region of the brain that monitors the speed of movement and controls unwanted movements and is responsible for sending signals to the muscles instructing them when to move and when to stop.

Faulty signals from the brain causes muscles to spasm and pull on the body incorrectly, this forces the body into twisting, repetitive movements or abnormal postures.

If dystonia starts in adult life it usually remains focal to one part of the body, however if it starts in early childhood, it tends to spread across multiple parts of the body.

Types of Dystonia

Focal dystonias – are limited to specific parts of the body like the neck, eye, mouth, tongue and voice to name a few and they generally appear between the ages of 30 and 50.

Focal hand dystonia – this is also known as writer’s cramp or musician’s cramp.

Dystonias affecting multiple parts of the body
  • Generalised dystonia – affects most of the body mainly involving the back and trunk
  • Myoclonus dystonia – where jerking movements occur with dystonia
  • Paroxysmal dystonia – which affects the whole or part of the body in brief episodes
  • Dopa responsive dystonia – this is a rare form of dystonia that can respond to treatment

There are also secondary dystonias which can be caused by other medical conditions such as: cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, metabolic disorders and strokes.

Warning signs to look out?

Dystonia generally seems to develop gradually, small facial/jaw spasms or difficulty chewing may suggest early face or jaw dystonia. Changes in the pitch of your speech may be early signs of laryngeal dystonia and mild jerky head movements a stiff neck or local neck discomfort may occur in the early stages of cervical dystonia. Similarly, children who develop generalized dystonia may first complain of cramps in a leg or a foot turning in.

Is Dystonia hereditary?

There could be a genetic or hereditary link to dystonia, as relatives of patients suffering from this condition often also have some kind of tremor. However, even if a child inherits the gene, they may not necessarily go on to develop dystonia. In the UK about 30 to 40 per cent of people with the affected gene develop dystonia.

Is there a cure for Dystonia?

Currently there is no cure however there is a wide range of treatments available including various types of prescribed medication along with alternative therapies such as – physiotherapy, speech therapy, acupuncture, osteopathy and chiropractic techniques also help some people.

What is the likely outcome?

It appears that dystonia is not a life-threatening illness but can be extremely debilitating and it can have a profound effect both emotionally and functionally.

People who suffer with this dreadful condition appear to be encouraged to lead as normal a life as possible with the help and support from family and friends. Although most people seem to feel their life is like a roller coaster ride at times.

In some cases the dystonia may return after a period of remission, but other people can remain symptom free for the rest of their lives.

You can find out more details about Dystonia from the The Dystonia Society website.

Remember, Dystonia may affect someone you know.

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