Muscular dystrophy is a group of inherited, progressive muscle disorders. All forms cause progressive weakness and degeneration of the muscles that control movement. Some also affect the heart or other organs. Age of onset is between infancy to adulthood. The different forms include: Duchenne dystrophy, which is the most commonBecker dystrophy, which is a milder form of Duchenne dystrophyMyotonic muscular dystrophy, which can begin in late adulthoodFacioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, which affects the muscles of the face, shoulder blades, and upper armsCongenital muscular dystrophy, which is diagnosed on or near birth and results in overall muscle weaknessDistal muscular dystrophy, which affects the distal muscles of the lower arms, hands, lower legs, and feetEmery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy, which affects the muscles of the shoulders, upper-arms, and calf musclesLimb-girdle muscular dystrophy, which affects the muscles around the hips and shouldersOculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy, which affects swallowing and the ability to keep the eyes open
This condition is caused by defects in genes that control muscle development and function. In some cases, the genes are passed from parent to child. In other cases, the genetic mutation occurs spontaneously.
These factors increase your chance of developing muscular dystrophy. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors: Family member with muscular dystrophySex: males are at increased risk for Duchenne dystrophy and Becker dystrophy
Each type of muscular dystrophy has its own unique symptoms. For example, the muscles that are affected may differ depending upon the type.
Symptoms common to most forms of muscular dystrophy may include:
Initial symptoms: Progressive weakening of musclesEnlargement of muscles as they weakenMuscle crampingClumsinessFrequent falling and difficulty getting up
Later symptoms: Muscle contraction and stiffeningMuscle deterioration
Severe Muscle Contraction of the Hand
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Symptoms specific to Duchenne and Becker dystrophy include: Initial symptoms: Usually muscles closest to the trunk become weak first. Then, muscles further away weaken as the disease advances.Enlargement of calf muscles as they weakenLater symptoms Abnormally curved spineRespiratory infectionsSevere muscle deterioration, usually leading to use of a wheelchairDifficulty breathingMuscle contraction and stiffening—often severeDistortion of the bodyReduced intelligence
Symptoms specific to myotonic muscular dystrophy include: Difficulty letting go after a handshakeReduced intelligenceExcessive sleeping
Symptoms usually become worse over time. In many forms, life expectancy is shortened.
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your blood may be tested for evidence of muscle damage
biopsy will identify the
type of muscular dystrophy
Your muscles and nerves may be tested. This can be done with: Electromyogram (EMG)Nerve conduction study (NCS)
There is no cure for muscular dystrophy. However, treatment may help improve the symptoms.
Treatment may consist of:
Physical therapy and exercise can help prevent the muscles from permanently contracting and stiffening.
In earlier stages, wearing braces may improve your ability to move around. A back brace may slow curvature of the spine.
Medicines may include: Corticosteroids to relieve muscle weakness in Duchenne muscular dystrophy
supplements may reduce fatigue and increase strength
Drugs for heart problems if muscular dystrophy affects the heart
In severe cases, surgery may be needed to release muscles that are painfully tight. If there are heart problems, a
may be needed.
Muscular dystrophy is an inherited disease. Get genetic counseling if you are concerned about having a child with muscular dystrophy, especially if you: Have muscular dystrophy or a family history of the diseaseMay be a carrier of the gene for muscular dystrophyHave a partner with a family history of the disease
Aartsma-Rus A, den Dunnen JT, et al. New insights in gene-derived
therapy: the example of Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
Ann NY Acad Sci.
Amato AA, Griggs RC. Overview of the muscular dystrophies.
Handb Clin Neurol.
Congenital muscular dystrophy. Muscular Dystrophy Association website. Available at: http://mda.org/search/site/congenital. Accessed October 7, 2013.
Distal muscular dystrophy. Muscular Dystrophy Association website. Available at: http://mda.org/disease/distal-muscular-dystrophy. Accessed October 7, 2013.
Duchenne muscular dystrophy. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php. Updated March 15, 2013. Accessed July 25, 2013.
Emery-dreifuss muscular dystrophy. Muscular Dystrophy Association website. Available at: http://mda.org/disease/emery-dreifuss-muscular-dystrophy. Accessed October 7, 2013.
Escolar DM, Hache LP, et al. Randomized, blinded trial of weekend vs daily prednisone in Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy. Muscular Dystrophy Association website. Available at: http://mda.org/disease/fsh-muscular-dystrophy. Accessed October 7, 2013.
Limb-girdle muscular dystrophy. Muscular Dystrophy Association website. Available at: http://mda.org/disease/limb-girdle-muscular-dystrophy. Accessed October 7, 2013.
NINDS muscular dystrophy information page.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at:
Updated February 14, 2013. Accessed July 25, 2013.
Oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy. Muscular Dystrophy Association website. Available at: http://mda.org/disease/oculopharyngeal-muscular-dystrophy/overview. Accessed October 7, 2013.
Last reviewed June 2013 by John C. Keel, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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