What is Dystonia?

Dystonia is a movement disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions that cause abnormal, repetitive movements, or spasms. Sometimes those spasms can look like a tremor. Dystonia can impact your quality of life, interfering with activities as simple as eating, drinking and even seeing.

Causes & Risk Factors of Dystonia

Doctors aren’t sure what causes dystonia, but it could be because of a problem with the nerve cells communicating in your brain.

Dystonia can also be a symptom of another movement disorder, such as Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease or Wilson’s disease. It can also be the result of a traumatic brain injury, stroke or brain tumor.

Symptoms of Dystonia

In some people, dystonia only affects one part of the body. Others experience muscle spasms all over. Symptoms can be mild to severe and can sometimes be painful. Areas of the body that may be affected include:

  • Neck (head twists and turns or goes forward and backward, which can be painful)
  • Eyelids (rapid blinking that impacts your eyesight and can cause dry eye)
  • Jaw (slurred speech, drooling or difficulty eating)
  • Voice box (sounds like you’re whispering)
  • Hand or arm (may occur when you’re writing, playing an instrument or playing sports – any activity that involves hand/arm movement)

Diagnosing Dystonia

There is no single test to determine if you have dystonia. Doctors rely on observing symptoms and learning about the patient’s health history. They use two classifications when diagnosing dystonia:

  1. Clinical characteristics (the age symptoms appeared, body distribution, relation to another movement disorder)
  2. Cause (damage to the nervous system or born with it)

Your doctor may order additional testing to rule out other conditions. Those tests can include blood, urine and/or spinal fluid samples, along with electromyography (EMG) or electroencephalography (EEG).

Treating Dystonia

Unfortunately, there is no cure for dystonia. But there are medications and treatments available to treat your symptoms and lessen your pain. Your specific treatment plan will be determined by the underlying cause of the dystonia. Treatments options may include:

  • Medication
  • Botox injections
  • Physical and/or speech therapy

DBS for Dystonia

If your symptoms are severe and can’t be controlled with medication, you may be a candidate for a surgery called deep brain stimulation (DBS). A neurosurgeon implants electrodes in your brain and then connects them to a pacemaker-like device in your chest. The device sends pulses that can help stop the muscle spasms. Many patients see a significant reduction in symptoms after DBS surgery.

If you experience muscle contractions that interfere with your daily activities, talk to your Mercy doctor about your options. We’ll develop a treatment plan that’s customized to your specific needs.


Dr. Cherian Karunapuzha

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