Muscular dystrophy is the name for a group of inherited disorders in which strength and muscle bulk gradually decline. Nine types of muscular dystrophies are generally recognized.
The muscular dystrophies include:
- Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD): DMD affects young boys, causing progressive muscle weakness, usually beginning in the legs. It is a severe form of muscular dystrophy. DMD occurs in about one in 3,500 male births, and affects approximately 8,000 boys and young men in the United States. A milder form occurs in a very small number of female carriers.
- Becker muscular dystrophy (BMD): BMD affects older boys and young men, following a milder course than DMD. It occurs in about one in 30,000 male births.
- Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy (EDMD): EDMD affects both males and females because it can be inherited as an autosomal dominant or recessive disorder. Symptoms include contractures and weakness in the calves, weakness in the shoulders and upper arms, and problems in the way electrical impulses travel through the heart to make it beat (heart conduction defects). Fewer than 300 cases of EDMD have been reported in the medical literature.
- Limb-girdle muscular dystrophy (LGMD): LGMD begins in late childhood to early adulthood and affects both men and women, causing weakness in the muscles around the hips and shoulders, and weakness in the limbs. It is the most variable of the muscular dystrophies, and there are several different forms of the condition now recognized. Many people with suspected LGMD have probably been misdiagnosed in the past, and therefore, the prevalence of the condition is difficult to estimate. The highest prevalence of LGMD is in a small mountainous Basque province in northern Spain, where the condition affects 69 persons per million.
- Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSH): FSH, also known as Landouzy-Dejerine condition, begins in late childhood to early adulthood and affects both men and women, causing weakness in the muscles of the face, shoulders, and upper arms. The hips and legs may also be affected. FSH occurs in about one out of every 20,000 people, and affects approximately 13,000 people in the United States.
- Myotonic dystrophy: Also known as Steinert's disease, it affects both men and women, causing generalized weakness first seen in the face, feet, and hands. It is accompanied by the inability to relax the affected muscles (myotonia). Symptoms may begin from birth through adulthood. It is the most common form of muscular dystrophy, affecting more than 30,000 people in the United States.
- Oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy (OPMD): OPMD affects adults of both sexes, causing weakness in the eye muscles and throat. It is most common among French Canadian families in Quebec, and in Spanish-American families in the southwestern United States.
- Distal muscular dystrophy (DD): DD is a group of rare muscle diseases that have weakness and wasting of the distal (farthest from the center) muscles of the forearms, hands, lower legs, and feet in common. In general, the DDs are less severe, progress more slowly, and involve fewer muscles than the other dystrophies. DD usually begins in middle age or later, causing weakness in the muscles of the feet and hands. It is most common in Sweden, and rare in other parts of the world.
- Congenital muscular dystrophy (CMD): CMD is a rare group of muscular dystrophies that have in common the presence of muscle weakness at birth (congenital), and abnormal muscle biopsies. CMD results in generalized weakness, and usually progresses slowly. A subtype, called Fukuyama CMD, also involves mental retardation and is more common in Japan.
The muscular dystrophies are genetic conditions, meaning they are caused by alterations in genes. Genes, which are linked together on chromosomes, have two functions; they code for the production of proteins, and they are the material of inheritance. Parents pass along genes to their children, providing them with a complete set of instructions for making their own proteins.
Because both parents contribute genetic material to their offspring, each child carries two copies of almost every gene, one from each parent. For some conditions to occur, both copies must be altered. Such conditions are called autosomal recessive conditions. Some forms of LGMD and DD exhibit this pattern of inheritance, as does CMD. A person with only one altered copy, called a carrier, will not have the condition, but may pass the altered gene on to his children. When two carriers have children, the chances of having a child with the condition is one in four for each pregnancy.
Other conditions occur when only one altered gene copy is present. Such conditions are called autosomal dominant conditions. DM, FSH, and OPMD, exhibit this pattern of inheritance, as do some forms of DD and LGMD. When a person affected by the condition has a child with someone not affected, the chances of having an affected child is one in two.
Because of chromosomal differences between the sexes, some genes are not present in two copies. The chromosomes that determine whether a person is male or female are called the X and Y chromosomes. A person with two X chromosomes is female, while a person with one X and one Y is male. While the X chromosome carries many genes, the Y chromosome carries almost none. Therefore, a male has only one copy of each gene on the X chromosome, and if it is altered, he will have the condition that alteration causes. Such conditions are said to be X-linked. X-linked conditions include DMD, BMD, and EDMD. Women are not usually affected by X-linked conditions, since they will likely have one unaltered copy between the two chromosomes. Some female carriers of DMD have a mild form of the condition, probably because their one unaltered gene copy is shut down in some of their cells.
Women carriers of X-linked conditions have a one in two chance of passing the altered gene on to each child born. Daughters who inherit the altered gene will be carriers. A son born without the altered gene will be free of the condition and cannot pass it on to his children. A son born with the altered gene will have the condition. He will pass the altered gene on to each of his daughters, who will then be carriers, but to none of his sons (because they inherit his Y chromosome).
Not all genetic alterations are inherited. As many as one third of the cases of DMD are due to new mutations that arise during egg formation in the mother. New mutations are less common in other forms of muscular dystrophy.
Several of the muscular dystrophies, including DMD, BMD, CMD, and most forms of LGMD, are due to alterations in the genes for a complex of muscle proteins. This complex spans the muscle cell membrane (a thin sheath that surrounds each muscle cell) to unite a fibrous network on the interior of the cell with a fibrous network on the outside. Theory holds that by linking these two networks, the complex acts as a "shock absorber," redistributing and evening out the forces generated by contraction of the muscle, thereby preventing rupture of the muscle membrane. Alterations in the proteins of the complex lead to deterioration of the muscle during normal contraction and relaxation cycles. Symptoms of these conditions set in as the muscle gradually exhausts its ability to repair itself.
Both DMD and BMD are caused by alterations in the gene for the protein called dystrophin. The alteration leading to DMD prevents the formation of any dystrophin, while that of BMD allows some protein to be made, accounting for the differences in severity and age of onset between the two conditions. Differences among the other muscular dystrophies in terms of the muscles involved and the ages of onset are less easily explained.
A number of genes have been found to cause LGMD. A majority of the more severe autosomal recessive types of LGMD with childhood-onset are caused by alterations in the genes responsible for making proteins called sarcoglycans. The sarcoglycans are a complex of proteins that are normally located in the muscle cell membrane along with dystrophin. Loss of these proteins causes the muscle cell membrane to lose some of its shock absorber qualities. The genes responsible include LGMD2D on chromosome 17, which codes for the alpha-sarcoglycan protein; LGMD2E on chromosome 4, which codes for the beta-sarcoglycan protein; LGMD2C on chromosome 13, which codes for the gamma-sarcoglycan protein; and LGMD2F on chromosome 5, which codes for the delta-sarcoglycan protein. Some cases of autosomal recessive LGMD are caused by an alteration in a gene, LGMD2A, on chromosome 15, which codes for a muscle enzyme, calpain 3. The relationship between this alteration and the symptoms of the condition is unclear. Alterations in a gene called LGMD2B on chromosome 2 that codes for the dysferlin protein, is also responsible for a minority of autosomal recessive LGMD
The genes causing these types of LGMD, their chromosomal location, and the proteins they code for (when known) are listed below:
- LGMD1A (chromosome 5): myotilin
- LGMD1B (chromosome 1): laminin
- LGMD1C (chromosome 3): caveolin
- LGMD1D (chromosome 6)
- LGMD1E (chromosome 7)
- COL6A1 (chromosome 21): collagen VI alpha 1
- COL6A2 (chromosome 21): collagen VI alpha 2
- COL6A3 (chromosome 2): collagen VI alpha 3
The causes of the other muscular dystrophies are not as well understood:
- EDMD is due to a alteration in the gene for a protein called emerin, which is found in the membrane of a cell's nucleus, but whose exact function is unknown.
- Myotonic dystrophy is caused by alterations in a gene on chromosome 19 for an enzyme called myotonin protein kinase that may control the flow of charged particles within muscle cells. This gene alteration is called a triple repeat, meaning it contains extra triplets of DNA code. It is possible that this alteration affects nearby genes as well, and that the widespread symptoms of myotonic dystrophy are due to a range of genetic disruptions.
- The gene for OPMD appears to also be altered with a triple repeat. The function of the affected protein may involve translation of genetic messages in a cell's nucleus.
- The gene(s) for FSH is located on the long arm of chromosome 4 at gene location 4q35. Nearly all cases of FSH are associated with a deletion (missing piece) of genetic material in this region. Researchers are investigating the molecular connection of this deletion and FSH. It is not yet certain whether the deleted material contains an active gene or changes the regulation or activity of a nearby FSH gene. A small number of FSH cases are not linked to chromosome 4. Their linkage to any other chromosome or genetic feature is under investigation.
- The gene(s) responsible for DD have not yet been found.
- •About 50% of individuals with CMD have their condition as a result of deficiency in a protein called merosin, which is made by a gene called laminin. The merosin protein usually lies outside muscle cells and links them to the surrounding tissue. When merosin is not produced, the muscle fibers degenerate soon after birth. A second gene called integrin is responsible for CMD in a few individuals but alterations in this gene are a rare cause of CMD. The gene responsible for Fukuyama CMD is FCMD and it is responsible for making a protein called fukutin whose function is not clear.
Signs and symptoms
All of the muscular dystrophies are marked by muscle weakness as the major symptom. The distribution of symptoms, age of onset, and progression differ significantly. Pain is sometimes a symptom of each, usually due to the effects of weakness on joint position.
DUCHENNE MUSCULAR DYSTROPHY (DMD) A boy with Duchenne muscular dystrophy usually begins to show symptoms as a pre-schooler. The legs are affected first, making walking difficult and causing balance problems. Most patients walk three to six months later than expected and have difficulty running. Later on, a boy with DMD will push his hands against his knees to rise to a standing position, to compensate for leg weakness. About the same time, his calves will begin to enlarge, though with fibrous tissue rather than with muscle, and feel firm and rubbery; this condition gives DMD one of its alternate names, pseudohypertrophic muscular dystrophy. He will widen his stance to maintain balance, and walk with a waddling gait to advance his weakened legs. Contractures (permanent muscle tightening) usually begin by age five or six, most severely in the calf muscles. This pulls the foot down and back, forcing the boy to walk on tip-toes, and further decreases balance. Climbing stairs and rising unaided may become impossible by age nine or ten, and most boys use a wheelchair for mobility by the age of 12. Weakening of the trunk muscles around this age often leads to scoliosis (a side-to-side spine curvature) and kyphosis (a front-to-back curvature).
The most serious weakness of DMD is weakness of the diaphragm, the sheet of muscles at the top of the abdomen that perform the main work of breathing and coughing. Diaphragm weakness leads to reduced energy
Among males with DMD, the incidence of cardiomyopathy (weakness of the heart muscle), increases steadily in teenage years. Almost all patients have cardiomyopathy after 18 years of age. It has also been shown that carrier females are at increased risk for cardiomyopathy and should also be screened.
About one third of males with DMD experience specific learning disabilities, including difficulty learning by ear rather than by sight and difficulty paying attention to long lists of instructions. Individualized educational programs usually compensate well for these disabilities.
BECKER MUSCULAR DYSTROPHY (BMD) The symptoms of BMD usually appear in late childhood to early adulthood. Though the progression of symptoms may parallel that of DMD, the symptoms are usually milder and the course more variable. The same pattern of leg weakness, unsteadiness, and contractures occur later for the young man with BMD, often allowing independent walking into the twenties or early thirties. Scoliosis may occur, but is usually milder and progresses more slowly. Cardiomyopathy occurs more commonly in BMD. Problems may include irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias) and congestive heart failure. Symptoms may include fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, and dizziness. Respiratory weakness also occurs, and may lead to the need for mechanical ventilation.
EMERY-DREIFUSS MUSCULAR DYSTROPHY (EDMD) This type of muscular dystrophy usually begins in early childhood, often with contractures preceding muscle weakness. Weakness affects the shoulder and upper arm initially, along with the calf muscles, leading to foot-drop. Most men with EDMD survive into middle age, although an abnormality in the heart's rhythm (heart block) may be fatal if not treated with a pacemaker.
LIMB-GIRDLE MUSCULAR DYSTROPHY (LGMD) While there are several genes that cause the various types of LGMD, two major clinical forms of LGMD are usually recognized. A severe childhood form is similar in appearance to DMD, but is inherited as an autosomal recessive trait. Symptoms of adult-onset LGMD usually appear in a person's teens or twenties, and are marked by progressive weakness and wasting of the muscles closest to the trunk. Contractures may occur, and the ability to walk is usually lost about 20 years after onset. Some people with LGMD develop respiratory weakness that requires use of a ventilator. Life-span may be somewhat shortened. Autosomal dominant forms usually occur later in life and progress relatively slowly.
FACIOSCAPULOHUMERAL MUSCULAR DYSTROPHY (FSH) FSH varies in its severity and age of onset, even among members of the same family. Symptoms most commonly begin in the teens or early twenties, though infant or childhood onset is possible. Symptoms tend to be more severe in those with earlier onset. The condition is named for the regions of the body most severely affected by the condition: muscles of the face (facio-), shoulders (scapulo-), and upper arms (humeral). Hips and legs may be affected as well. Children with FSH may develop partial or complete deafness.
The first symptom noticed is often difficulty lifting objects above the shoulders. The weakness may be greater on one side than the other. Shoulder weakness also causes the shoulder blades to jut backward, called scapular winging. Muscles in the upper arm often lose bulk sooner than those of the forearm, giving a "Popeye" appearance to the arms. Facial weakness may lead to loss of facial expression, difficulty closing the eyes completely, and inability to drink through a straw, blow up a balloon, or whistle. A person with FSH may not be able to wrinkle thier forehead. Contracture of the calf muscles may cause foot-drop, leading to frequent tripping over curbs or rough spots. People with earlier onset often require a wheelchair for mobility, while those with later onset rarely do.
MYOTONIC DYSTROPHY Symptoms of myotonic dystrophy include facial weakness and a slack jaw, drooping eyelids (ptosis), and muscle wasting in the forearms and calves. A person with myotonic dystrophy has difficulty relaxing his grasp, especially if the object is cold. Myotonic dystrophy affects heart muscle, causing arrhythmias and heart block, and the muscles of the digestive system, leading to motility disorders and constipation. Other body systems are affected as well; myotonic dystrophy may cause cataracts, retinal degeneration, mental deficiency, frontal balding, skin disorders, testicular atrophy, sleep apnea, and insulin resistance. An increased need or desire for sleep is common, as is diminished motivation. The condition is extremely variable; some individuals show profound weakness as a newborn (congenital myotonic dystrophy), others show mental retardation in childhood, many show characteristic facial features and muscle wasting in adulthood, while the most mildly affected individuals show only cataracts in middle age with no other symptoms. Individuals with a severe form of mytonic dystropy typically have severe disabilites within 20 years of onset, although most do not require a wheelchair even late in life.
OCULOPHARYNGEAL MUSCULAR DYSTROPHY (OPMD) OPMD usually begins in a person's thirties or
DISTAL MUSCULAR DYSTROPHY (DD) DD usually begins in the twenties or thirties, with weakness in the hands, forearms, and lower legs. Difficulty with fine movements such as typing or fastening buttons may be the first symptoms. Symptoms progress slowly, and the condition usually does not affect life span.
CONGENITAL MUSCULAR DYSTROPHY (CMD) CMD is marked by severe muscle weakness from birth, with infants displaying "floppiness," very poor muscle tone, and they often have trouble moving their limbs or head against gravity. Mental function is normal but some are never able to walk. They may live into young adulthood or beyond. In contrast, children with Fukuyama CMD are rarely able to walk, and have severe mental retardation. Most children with this type of CMD die in childhood.
The diagnosis of muscular dystrophy involves a careful medical history and a thorough physical exam to determine the distribution of symptoms and to rule out other causes. Family history may give important clues, since all the muscular dystrophies are genetic conditions (though no family history will be evident in the event of new mutations; in autosomal recessive inheritance, the family history may also be negative).
Lab tests may include:
- Blood level of the muscle enzyme creatine kinase (CK). CK levels rise in the blood due to muscle damage, and may be seen in some conditions even before symptoms appear.
- Muscle biopsy, in which a small piece of muscle tissue is removed for microscopic examination. Changes in the structure of muscle cells and presence of fibrous tissue or other aberrant structures are characteristic of different forms of muscular dystrophy. The muscle tissue can also be stained to detect the presence or absence of particular proteins, including dystrophin.
- Electromyogram (EMG). This electrical test is used to examine the response of the muscles to stimulation. Decreased response is seen in muscular dystrophy. Other characteristic changes are seen in DM.
- Genetic tests. Several of the muscular dystrophies can be positively identified by testing for the presence of the altered gene involved. Accurate genetic tests are available for DMD, BMD, DM, several forms of LGMD, and EDMD. Genetic testing for some of these conditions in future pregnancies of an affected individual or parents of an affected individual can be done before birth through amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling. Prenatal testing can only be undertaken after the diagnosis in the affected individual has been genetically confirmed and the couple has been counseled regarding the risks of recurrence.
- Other specific tests as necessary. For EDMD, DMD and BMD, for example, an electrocardiogram may be needed to test heart function, and hearing tests are performed for children with FSH.
For most forms of muscular dystrophy, accurate diagnosis is not difficult when done by someone familiar with the range of conditions. There are exceptions, however. Even with a muscle biopsy, it may be difficult to distinguish between FSH and another muscle condition, polymyositis. Childhood-onset LGMD is often mistaken for the much more common DMD, especially when it occurs in boys. BMD with an early onset appears very similar to DMD, and a genetic test may be needed to accurately distinguish them. The muscular dystrophies may be confused with conditions involving the motor neurons, such as spinal muscular atrophy; conditions of the neuromuscular junction, such as myasthenia gravis; and other muscle conditions, as all involve generalized weakness of varying distribution.
Prenatal diagnosis (testing of the baby while in the womb) can be done for those types of muscular dystrophy where the specific disease-causing gene alteration has been identified in a previously affected family member. Prenatal diagnosis can be done utilizing DNA extracted from tissue obtained by chorionic villus sampling or amniocentesis.
There are no cures for any of the muscular dystrophies. Prednisone, a corticosteroid, has been shown to delay the progression of DMD somewhat, for reasons that are still unclear. Some have reported improvement in strength and function in patients treated with a single dose. Improvement begins within ten days and plateaus after three months. Long-term benefit has not been demonstrated. Prednisone is also prescribed for BMD, though no controlled studies have tested its benefit. A study is under way in the use of gentamicin, an antibiotic that may slow down the symptoms of DMD in a small number of cases. No other drugs are currently known to have an effect on the course of any other muscular dystrophy.
Treatment of muscular dystrophy is mainly directed at preventing the complications of weakness, including decreased mobility and dexterity, contractures, scoliosis, heart alterations, and respiratory insufficiency.
Physical therapy, regular stretching in particular, is used to maintain the range of motion of affected muscles and to prevent or delay contractures. Braces are used as well, especially on the ankles and feet to prevent tip-toeing. Full-leg braces may be used in children with DMD to prolong the period of independent walking. Strengthening other muscle groups to compensate for weakness may be possible if the affected muscles are few and isolated, as in the earlier stages of the milder muscular dystrophies. Regular, nonstrenuous exercise helps maintain general good health. Strenuous exercise is usually not recommended, since it may damage muscles further.
When contractures become more pronounced, tenotomy surgery may be performed. In this operation, the tendon of the contractured muscle is cut, and the limb is braced in its normal resting position while the tendon regrows. In FSH, surgical fixation of the scapula can help compensate for shoulder weakness. For a person with OPMD, surgical lifting of the eyelids may help compensate for weakened muscular control. For a person with DM, sleep apnea may be treated surgically to maintain an open airway. Scoliosis surgery is often needed in boys with DMD, but much less often in other muscular dystrophies. Surgery is recommended at a much lower degree of curvature for DMD than for scoliosis due to other conditions, since the decline in respiratory function in DMD makes surgery at a later time dangerous. In this surgery, the vertebrae are fused together to maintain the spine in the upright position. Steel rods are inserted at the time of operation to keep the spine rigid while the bones grow together.
When any type of surgery is performed in patients with muscular dystrophy, anesthesia must be carefully selected. People with MD are susceptible to a severe reaction, known as malignant hyperthermia, when given halothane anesthetic.
The occupational therapist suggests techniques and tools to compensate for the loss of strength and dexterity. Strategies may include modifications in the home, adaptive utensils and dressing aids, compensatory movements and positioning, wheelchair accessories, or communication aids.
Good nutrition helps to promote general health in all the muscular dystrophies. No special diet or supplement has been shown to be of use in any of the conditions. The weakness in the throat muscles seen especially in OPMD and later DMD may necessitate the use of a gastrostomy tube, inserted in the stomach to provide nutrition directly.
The arrhythmias of EDMD and BMD may be treatable with antiarrhythmia drugs. A pacemaker may be implanted if these do not provide adequate control. Heart transplants are increasingly common for men with BMD. A complete cardiac evaluation is recommended at least once in all carrier females of DMD and EDMD.
People who develop weakness of the diaphragm or other ventilatory muscles may require a mechanical ventilator to continue breathing deeply enough. Air may be administered through a nasal mask or mouthpiece, or through a tracheostomy tube, which is inserted through a surgical incision through the neck and into the windpipe. Most people with muscular dystrophy do not need a tracheostomy, although some may prefer it to continual use of a mask or mouthpiece. Supplemental oxygen is not needed. Good hygiene of the lungs is critical for health and long-term survival of a person with weakened ventilatory muscles. Assisted cough techniques provide the strength needed to clear the airways of secretions; an assisted cough machine is also available and provides excellent results.
Two experimental procedures aiming to cure DMD have attracted a great deal of attention in the past decade. In myoblast transfer, millions of immature muscle cells are injected into an affected muscle. The goal of the treatment is to promote the growth of the injected cells, replacing the abnormal host cells with healthy new ones. Myoblast transfer is under investigation but remains experimental.
Gene therapy introduces unaltered copies of the altered gene into muscle cells. The goal is to allow the existing muscle cells to use the new gene to produce the protein it cannot make with its abnormal gene. Problems with gene therapy research have included immune rejection of the virus used to introduce the gene, loss of gene function after several weeks, and an inability to get the gene to enough cells to make a functional difference in the affected muscle. Researchers are preparing for the first gene therapy trial for LGMD in the United States. The goal will be to replace the missing sarcoglycan gene(s).
The expected lifespan for a male with DMD has increased significantly in the past two decades. Most young men will live into their early or mid-twenties. Respiratory infections become an increasing problem as their breathing becomes weaker, and these infections are usually the cause of death.
The course of the other muscular dystrophies is more variable; expected life spans and degrees of disability are hard to predict, but may be related to age of onset and initial symptoms. Prediction is made more difficult because, as new genes are discovered, it is becoming clear that several of the dystrophies are not uniform disorders, but rather symptom groups caused by different genes.
People with dystrophies with significant heart involvement (BMD, EDMD, myotonic dystrophy) may nonetheless have almost normal life spans, provided that cardiac complications are monitored and treated aggressively. The respiratory involvement of BMD and LGMD similarly require careful and prompt treatment.
There is no way to prevent any of the muscular dystrophies in a person who has the genes responsible for these disorders. Accurate genetic tests, including prenatal tests, are available for some of the muscular dystrophies. Results of these tests may be useful for purposes of family planning.
Emery, Alan. Muscular Dystrophy: The Facts. Oxford Medical Publications, 1994.
Swash, Michael, and Martin Schwartz. Neuromuscular Conditions: A Practical Approach to Diagnosis and Management, 3rd edition. Springer, 1997.
Muscular Dystrophy Association. 3300 East Sunrise Dr., Tucson, AZ 85718. (520) 529-2000 or (800) 572-1717. <http://www.mdausa.org>.
Online Myotonic & Congenital Dystrophies Support Group International. 185 Unionville Road, Freedom, PA 15042. (724)775-9448 or (724)774-0261. <http://www.angelfire.com/pa2/MyotonicDystrophy/index.html>.
Nada Quercia, Msc, CCGC