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What Is Dystonia?

Dystonia is a movement disorder that causes uncontrollable movements in your body. The muscle spasms are either repetitive or intermittent. Dystonia can be a distinct disease or the symptom of another condition such as Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease.

Dystonic Reaction

A dystonic reaction occurs when you get acute dystonic symptoms due to a certain medication. These reactions require immediate medical attention as they can be very severe and life-threatening.

Types of Dystonia

Dystonia can affect everyone, from small children to older adults. Childhood dystonia is usually generalized dystonia (affecting most body parts). It is usually caused by genetic factors, while adult-onset dystonia is usually focal (affecting one body part) and has unknown causes.

Focal dystonia is when dystonia affects one specific part of the body. It can affect different body parts, such as:

  • blepharospasm (affects your eyelid and brow muscles);
  • cervical dystonia (the most common type of adult dystonia that affects the neck, head, or shoulders);
  • lower limb dystonia (affects your legs);
  • cranial dystonia (affects your face, jaw, or tongue); 
  • laryngeal dystonia (affects your vocal cords); and
  • focal hand dystonia (affects the hand).

Dystonia Causes

Most cases of dystonia are idiopathic (of no known cause). A small percentage of dystonia cases have a known genetic cause. Dystonia can also be acquired due to causes such as brain injury, infection, drug side effects, stroke, and others.

Regardless of their cause, your symptoms will be effectively treated to improve your quality of life. Our movement disorder providers will determine the best treatment plan for your type of dystonia.

Dystonia Symptoms

Dystonia is characterized by sustained or intermittent muscle contractions causing abnormal, often repetitive, movements, postures, or both. Dystonic movements are typically patterned, twisting, and may be tremulous. These muscle spasms are often initiated or worsened by voluntary action, like writing.

Dystonic Movements

Symptoms of dystonia vary from person to person and may change over time. Dystonic movements include:

  • excessive blinking,
  • voice that sounds strained,
  • slurred speech,
  • hand cramps,
  • twisted leg or foot,
  • abnormal posturing or shaking of your head, and
  • other involuntary movements of any specific body part.

Call your primary care provider if you notice any of these symptoms in yourself or your loved one. Dystonia is treatable, and early detection is always best.

How Is Dystonia Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of dystonia is clinical, which means it will be based on your medical history, symptoms, and a physical examination. There is no lab test or imaging scan that determines a diagnosis. An accurate diagnosis of which type of dystonia you have is important.

At University of Utah Health, our neurologists will gather extensive information from each patient to diagnose their case and develop a customized treatment plan.

Why Choose U of U Health?

Neurologists in our Movement Disorders Clinic are specially trained to diagnose and treat all types of dystonia, whether it is caused by your medication or another underlying cause. We offer routine treatments such as oral medications and we are one of the few health care centers in the Mountain West to offer advanced treatments, such as ultrasound-guided botulinum toxin injections and deep brain stimulation.

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Dystonia Treatment

Treatment for dystonia varies according to your diagnosis. If your dystonia is a side effect of your medication, we may ask you to stop taking the medication to eliminate your symptoms. 

If your dystonia is caused by an underlying health condition, we will treat that issue to eliminate the symptoms.

For dystonia with no underlying cause, your symptoms may be lessened or relieved with the following treatments:

  • oral medications,
  • injectable medications (such as botulinum toxin), or
  • deep brain stimulation (a long-term treatment option used to treat both children and adults with dystonia).

Botulinum Toxin for Dystonia

Botulinum toxin is a first-line treatment for focal dystonia. It is a neurotoxin that stops abnormal signals from the brain to reach the muscles. It is injected into your body to stop muscles from spasming. It begins working within two weeks, with the best results seen at six weeks. This treatment will need to be repeated at regular intervals because its effect wears off after three months.

Does Dystonia Go Away?

This depends on the cause of your dystonia. If your dystonia has no known cause or starts in early childhood, it will most likely not go away. You will need to follow the treatment plan established by your neurologist, which may change throughout your lifetime.

Dystonia Life Expectancy

A diagnosis of dystonia does not generally reduce your life expectancy. If your dystonia began when you were an adult, your life expectancy should be equal to that of the general population.

If you have severe dystonia caused by inherited or genetic factors, your life expectancy can be affected. This depends on the exact gene mutation that caused your dystonia.

Schedule an Appointment at the Movement Disorders Clinic

If you or your loved one would like to schedule an appointment with one of our dystonia specialists at our Movement Disorders Clinic, ask your primary care provider for a referral to our neurology department. For more information, call us at 801-585‑7575. We’re happy to answer any questions and help take care of all your health care needs.