Muscular dystrophy is a group of diseases affecting the muscles that control movement. These diseases gradually cause weakness. There is no cure for muscular dystrophy, but medicines and physical therapy can help manage symptoms and slow down disease progression.
What is muscular dystrophy?
In muscular dystrophy, the muscle fibres break down, leading to increasing weakness and loss of muscle tissue.
Types of muscular dystrophy
There are many different types of muscular dystrophy. The most common ones are:
- Duchenne – this is the most common kind in children. It usually affects boys, but girls can still be carriers of the disease.
- Becker – while similar to Duchenne, Becker is milder and progresses more slowly. Symptoms usually occur later, during the teen years.
- Myotonic – this is the most common type in adults, affecting both men and women. The person is unable to relax their muscles after using them.
- Facioscapulohumeral (FSHD) – symptoms usually begin in the face and shoulders. It can start in the teenage years, but may begin later, and affects both females and males.
- Limb-girdle – the hip and shoulder muscles are usually affected first and there may also be breathing problems. It generally first occurs in childhood or the teenage years in both males and females.
Other forms of the disease are Emery–Dreifuss, oculopharyngeal, distal and congenital muscular dystrophy.
Muscular dystrophy symptoms
In muscular dystrophy, muscles gradually weaken. This can cause:
- falling regularly and finding it hard to get up
- wasted muscles
- losing the ability to walk
- breathing problems
- a curved spine (scoliosis)
- heart problems
- swallowing problems
Muscular dystrophy diagnosis
Muscular dystrophy is often diagnosed through genetic tests. Doctors may test people with a family history of the disease. A genetic counsellor may help with the testing.
Diagnosis can also involve:
- blood tests
- a muscle biopsy
- checks on the muscles and nervous system
- heart tests
- lung or breathing tests
Muscular dystrophy treatment
Unfortunately, there is no cure for muscular dystrophy. The aim of treatment is to keep the person with the condition feeling as good and as mobile as possible, for as long as possible.
Treatment depends on the type of muscular dystrophy. Treatments include:
- occupational therapy
- corticosteroids (steroid medicines)
- heart medicines or a pacemaker if the heart is affected
- regular checks on breathing and assistance with ventilators and other devices if breathing muscles are affected
- walkers and wheelchairs to maintain mobility and independence
- stretching exercises
- low-impact exercise, such as walking and swimming, which can help maintain strength, mobility and general health
- a special diet to avoid obesity
- braces to support weakened muscles and keep tendons stretched and flexible
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Last reviewed: March 2020