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Uncontrolled or Slow Movement (Dystonia)
In dystonia, involuntary muscle contractions cause slow and repetitive movements in one or more parts of your body. Learn more about causes and...

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People with dystonia have involuntary muscle contractions that cause slow and repetitive movements. These movements can:

  • cause twisting motions in one or more parts of your body
  • cause you to adopt abnormal postures

The most commonly affected body parts include your head, neck, trunk, and limbs. While dystonia can be mild, it can also be severe enough to affect your quality of life.

Symptoms of Dystonia

Dystonia can affect you in different ways. Muscle contractions can:

  • start in one area, such as your arm, leg, or neck
  • happen during a specific action, such as handwriting
  • get worse when you feel tired, stressed, or anxious
  • become more noticeable over time

Types of Dystonia

There are three main categories of dystonia:

  • Focal: This is the most common type of dystonia. It affects just one part of your body.
  • Generalized: This type affects the majority of your body, or your entire body.
  • Segmental: This type affects two or more nearby parts of your body.

What Causes Dystonia?

The exact cause of dystonia is unknown. However, doctors believe that certain medical conditions, genetics, or brain damage may be linked to this condition.

Associated Conditions

Certain medical conditions that affect your brain and nerve function are associated with dystonia. These conditions include:

  • encephalitis
  • cerebral palsy
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Wilson’s disease
  • tuberculosis
  • brain injury
  • stroke
  • brain tumor
  • brain injury during birth
  • carbon monoxide poisoning
  • heavy metal poisoning

Other Causes

Other factors known or believed to cause uncontrolled muscle movement include:

  • side effects or reactions to certain antipsychotic medications
  • lack of oxygen in your tissues and organs
  • inherited genes or genetic changes
  • disrupted communication between nerve cells in your brain

How Is Dystonia Diagnosed?

In many cases, dystonia is an ongoing symptom that may remain stable over time. You should see your doctor if:

  • there’s no clear explanation for your dystonia
  • your symptoms become worse over time
  • you’re experiencing other symptoms in addition to dystonia

Before Your Doctor’s Visit

It may be helpful to take a few notes about your symptoms, including:

  • when the uncontrolled movements began
  • if the movements are constant
  • if the movements get worse at certain times

For example, symptoms may flare up only after strenuous exercise. You should also find out if you have a history of dystonia in your family.

During Your Doctor’s Visit

Your doctor will likely take a thorough health history and perform a detailed physical exam. They will focus on your muscle and nerve function. They’ll note your:

  • medication history
  • recent illnesses
  • past and recent injuries
  • recent stressful events

Your doctor may ask you to see a neurologist to diagnose the underlying cause of your condition. Your doctor or specialist may perform tests to help make a diagnosis, including:

  • blood or urine tests
  • computed tomography (CT) scan
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • electromyogram (EMG)
  • electro encephalogram (EEG)
  • spinal tap
  • genetic studies

How Is Dystonia Treated?

There is no cure for dystonia. However, certain medications can help manage your symptoms.

Botulinum Toxin Type A (Botox) Injections

Botox injections into targeted muscle groups can help ease your muscle contractions. You must receive the injections every three months. Side effects include fatigue, dry mouth, and changes in your voice.

Oral Medications

Medications that affect the neurotransmitter called dopamine may also improve your symptoms. Dopamine controls your brain’s pleasure centers and regulates movement.

Physical Therapy

Massage, heat treatment, and low-impact exercises may help manage your symptoms.

Alternative Treatments

Research on alternative treatments for dystonia is limited. Some people have found relief by practicing certain alternative therapies, such as:

  • acupuncture: an ancient practice that inserts small, thin needles into various points on your body for pain relief.
  • yoga: exercise that combines gentle stretching movements with deep breathing and meditation.
  • biofeedback: electrical sensors that monitor your body functions and identify ways to control your muscle tension and blood pressure.

Are There Any Complications Related to Dystonia?

Severe dystonia can cause a number of complications, such as:

  • physical deformities, which may become permanent
  • varying levels of physical disability
  • abnormal positioning of your head
  • problems swallowing
  • difficulty with speech
  • issues with jaw movement
  • pain
  • fatigue

The Takeaway

Even though there’s no cure for dystonia, there are treatment options to help you manage your symptoms. Speak with your doctor about your risk of developing complications. You may have to try a few treatments, but there are steps you can take to start managing your dystonia. 

Written by: Krista O'Connell
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: [Ljava.lang.Object;@2434ff3e
Published: Jul 12, 2012
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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