Muscle Spasms, Handwriting Cramps, and Involuntary Movements: What is Dystonia?

Posted on 24 Jan 2011 04:24

By Ground Up Strength

Dystonia is a disorder of movement which causes muscle cramps, involuntary twisting actions, other repetitive movements or abnormal postures. These can be brought on by sustained muscle contractions or spasms and may be painful, affecting a single muscle or group of muscles. Dystonias can occur in the arms, legs, neck, face, or all over the body. Dystonias that affect specific area are called focal dystonias. These conditions affect over 300, 000 people in the U.S.

In dystonia, the neurological mechanism which helps muscles to relax does not function properly, resulting in muscles contracting even when they are not in use. This may in turn cause antagonist muscle groups to contract in opposition, in order to maintain proper body position or movement. This tug of war results in the twisting movements or abnormal postures characteristic of the disorder, of which there are about 13 forms.

Of the primary dystonias, many cases appear to be inherited. Dystonias can also be symptoms of other diseases, some of which may be hereditary. In some individuals, symptoms of a dystonia appear in childhood. For other individuals, the symptoms emerge in late adolescence or early adulthood.

Forms of Dystonia

Some examples of dystonia are

  • Blepharospasm which causes the eyes to involuntarily close or blink.
  • Spasmodic Torticollis/Retrocollis or Cervical Dystonia, the most common form of dystonia which causes neck spasms resulting in unusual postures of the neck and trunk.
  • Oromandibular, or Jaw Dystonia, where the jaw stays open or clenches shut. This causes spasms affecting jaw, mouth, and lower face. The tongue may be involved as in lingual dystonia.
  • Laryngeal Dystonia which is a focal dystonia that affects the vocal cords.
  • Writer's Cramp affecting only the hands

Symptoms of Dystonia

Early signs or symptoms of dystonia are problems with handwriting, foot cramps, or foot dragging after running or walking long distances. Other possible symptoms are tremor and voice or speech difficulties.

Dystonia Treatment

There is not one universally effective treatment. Medication, stress management, physical therapy, splinting, surgery, and biofeedback are used to help reduce or eliminate the muscle spasms and pain. Individual response to all treatments differ so there is not one treatment to fit all patients.

What is the prognosis?

The initial symptoms can be very mild and may be noticeable only after prolonged exertion, stress, or fatigue. Dystonias often progress through various stages. Initially, dystonic movements are intermittent and appear only during voluntary movements or stress. Later, individuals may show dystonic postures and movements while walking and ultimately even while they are relaxed. Dystonic motions may lead to permanent physical deformities by causing tendons to shorten.

Dystonia Information

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

American Dystonia Society

Dystonia Medical Research Foundation

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