Dystonia is a neurological movement disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions. 

Dystonia results from abnormal functioning of the basal ganglia, a deep part of the brain that helps control the coordination of movement. As many as 250,000 people in the United States have dystonia, making it the third most common movement disorder. There are several different forms of the condition that may affect only one muscle, groups of muscles or muscles throughout the body.

What Causes Dystonia?

The exact cause of dystonia is not yet known but may involve alterations in several regions of the brain or the communication between them. Dystonia may be:

  • Inherited – The disorder is transmitted genetically.
  • Acquired – Damage or degeneration in the brain is the cause.
  • Idiopathic – There is no identifiable cause.

What Are the Symptoms of Dystonia?

Dystonia can affect many different parts of the body and the symptoms can vary depending on its form. Overall, 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
  • Handwriting worsening after writing several lines
  • The neck may turn or pull involuntarily, especially when tired or under stress
  • Both eyes might blink rapidly and uncontrollably or muscle spasms may cause the eyes to close
  • Tremors
  • Difficulty speaking

Initially, the symptoms may be mild and noticeable only after prolonged exertion, stress or fatigue. Over time, the symptoms may worsen or become more widespread.  Sometimes, however, there is little or no progression.

How Is Dystonia Diagnosed?

Diagnosing dystonia can be difficult because the symptoms are similar to those of many other conditions and are so variable in nature. Dystonia is sometimes misdiagnosed as stress, a stiff neck or a psychological disorder. A doctor can make the diagnosis by learning about your symptoms and performing:

  • Genetic testing
  • A neurological exam
  • MRI of your brain

How Is Dystonia Treated?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for dystonia and therefore treatment is directed at relieving symptoms. Options for treating symptoms of dystonia include:

  • Botulinum toxin (Botox) injections
  • Several types of medication
  • Deep brain stimulation (DBS)
  • Physical therapy