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- Dystonia facts*
- What is dystonia?
- What are the symptoms of dystonia?
- What do researchers know about dystonia?
- When do symptoms of dystonia occur?
- How are the dystonias classified?
- What treatments are available for dystonias?
- What research is being done on dystonias?
- Where can I get more information about dystonias?
What are the symptoms of dystonia?
Dystonia can affect many different parts of the body, and the symptoms are different depending upon the form of dystonia. Early symptoms may include a foot cramp or a tendency for one foot to turn or drag -- either sporadically or after running or walking some distance -- or a worsening in handwriting after writing several lines. In other instances, the neck may turn or pull involuntarily, especially when the person is tired or under stress. Sometimes both eyes might blink rapidly and uncontrollably; other times, spasms will cause the eyes to close. Symptoms may also include tremor or difficulties speaking. In some cases, dystonia can affect only one specific action, while allowing others to occur unimpeded. For example, a musician may have dystonia when using her hand to play an instrument, but not when using the same hand to type. The initial symptoms can be very mild and may be noticeable only after prolonged exertion, stress, or fatigue. Over a period of time, the symptoms may become more noticeable or widespread; sometimes, however, there is little or no progression. Dystonia typically is not associated with problems thinking or understanding, but depression and anxiety may be present.
What do researchers know about dystonia?
The cause of dystonia is not known. Researchers believe that dystonia results from an abnormality in or damage to the basal ganglia or other brain regions that control movement. There may be abnormalities in the brain's ability to process a group of chemicals called neurotransmitters that help cells in the brain communicate with each other. There also may be abnormalities in the way the brain processes information and generates commands to move. In most cases, no abnormalities are visible using magnetic resonance imaging or other diagnostic imaging.
The dystonias can be divided into three groups: idiopathic, genetic, and acquired.
- Idiopathic dystonia refers to dystonia that does not have a clear cause. Many instances of dystonia are idiopathic.
- There are several genetic causes of dystonia. Some forms appear to be inherited in a dominant manner, which means only one parent who carries the defective gene is needed to pass the disorder to their child. Each child of a parent having the abnormal gene will have a 50 percent chance of carrying the defective gene. It is important to note the symptoms may vary widely in type and severity even among members of the same family. In some instances, persons who inherit the defective gene may not develop dystonia. Having one mutated gene appears to be sufficient to cause the chemical imbalances that may lead to dystonia, but other genetic or even environmental factors may play a role. Knowing the pattern of inheritance can help families understand the risk of passing dystonia along to future generations.
- Acquired dystonia, also called secondary dystonia, results from environmental or other damage to the brain, or from exposure to certain types of medications. Some causes of acquired dystonia include birth injury (including hypoxia, a lack of oxygen to the brain, and neonatal brain hemorrhage), certain infections, reactions to certain drugs, heavy metal or carbon monoxide poisoning, trauma, or stroke. Dystonia can be a symptom of other diseases, some of which may be hereditary. Acquired dystonia often plateaus and does not spread to other parts of the body. Dystonia that occurs as a result of medications often ceases if the medications are stopped quickly.