What is Dystonia?

Dystonia is common a neurological movement disorder in which a person experiences uncontrollable muscle spasms that can occasionally be quite painful. Caused by incorrect brain signals, these spasms pull on muscles in such a way that the body starts to move in twisting repetitive movements or causes it to assume abnormal postures. The condition may affect a single area of the body, or it could cause issues in several places at once. In some cases, dystonia can impact the entire body.

It is not yet fully understood why the brain sends the incorrect signals that are associated with the disorder. Research has suggested that those with dystonia show an issue within the basal ganglia region of the brain. There is no definite explanation as to why this problem is present. However, in a few instances, there are in fact clear causes. These include the use of certain drugs such as dopamine inhibitors, other medical conditions (usually cerebral palsy, tumor, or stroke), and genetics.

What are the Symptoms of Dystonia?

Symptoms vary from case to case. The condition can sometimes be severe, while other times it is relatively mild.

Symptoms include

  • Involuntary muscle contractions
  • Repetitive movements
  • Abnormal posture
  • Muscle cramps
  • Twitching eyelids
  • Twisting movements
  • Spasms in the voice box
  • Torticollis (spasms in neck muscles)

Dystonia Causes

Dystonia does not have an identifiable cause. However, it might be due to an altered nerve-cell communication in the brain. Some forms of dystonia are inherited, while gene mutations cause others.

Genes responsible for hereditary dystonia are passed down in families in a particular pattern called autosomal dominant. If a parent has one of these abnormal genes that cause dystonia, there is a one in two chance that the children will inherit the same gene and develop dystonia.

Acquired or secondary dystonia maybe as a result of other conditions which include:

  • Huntington’s disease – a genetic disorder that interferes with normal movement, feeding, behavior, and communication
  • Multiple sclerosis – a disease attributed to damage to the nervous system
  • Parkinson’s disease – a neurological condition that prevents the nerve cells in the brain from producing a chemical called dopamine
  • Injury to the spine or skull
  • Poisoning that affects the brain such as carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Wilson’s disease – this is a genetic disorder that leads to an excess build-up of copper in the tissues
  • Stroke – where blood supply is cut off from reaching some parts of the brain
  • Infections such as HIV can also cause dystonia
  • Cerebral palsy is also linked to dystonia

How is Dystonia Treated?

There is currently no cure for dystonia. However, there are several medications and therapies available to help manage the disorder. Muscle relaxants help reduce muscle tension, while sedatives, anti-tremor drugs, and neurotoxins minimize spasms and promote calmer muscles. Dopamine promoters stimulate the brain receptors for dopamine.

Physical therapy can aid in strengthening muscles and restoring function through various exercises. Patients may also benefit from a therapy called sensory trick, in which applied touch or a certain maneuver or position helps to reduce symptoms.

Dystonia Prevention

There is no way one can prevent primary dystonia caused by genetics. However, scientists are performing ongoing studies to find ways of preventing inherited forms of dystonia.

Stretching and exercises can help prevent abnormal muscle contractures. These exercises help to avoid risk factors such as stroke.

Adopting a healthy lifestyle that is free from drugs and alcohol can also contribute to preventing an occurrence of secondary dystonia. A healthy lifestyle also includes proper management of stress, tensions, and anxiety.

Individuals should also avoid strenuous activities if faced with an injury, since the brain has to concoct new motion schedules to recompense.

Last Reviewed:
September 20, 2016
Last Updated:
December 18, 2017