Myasthenia gravis (MG) is a chronic autoimmune disease characterized by fatigue and muscular weakness, especially in the face and neck, that results from a breakdown in the normal communication between nerves and muscles caused by the deficiency of acetylcholine at the neuromuscular (nerve-muscle) junctions. MG is the most common primary disorder of neuromuscular transmission.
MG is a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease characterized by varying degrees of weakness of the skeletal (voluntary) muscles of the body. The hallmark of this disease is muscle weakness that increases during periods of activity and improves after periods of rest. Muscles that control eye and eyelid movements, facial expression, chewing, talking, and swallowing are often, but not always, involved. The muscles that control breathing and neck and limb movements may also be affected.
Myasthenia gravis can be classified according to which skeletal muscles are affected. Within a year of onset, approximately 85–90% of affected persons develop generalized MG, which is characterized by weakness in the trunk, arms, and legs. About 10–15% of patients have weakness only in muscles that control eye movement. This type is called ocular myasthenia gravis.
Other types of MG include congenital MG, an inherited condition caused by a genetic defect, and transient neonatal, which occurs in infants born from mothers who have MG. Congenital MG develops at or shortly after birth and causes generalized symptoms.
Myasthenia gravis occurs in all ethnic groups and both genders. The prevalence of MG in the United States is estimated to be 14 per 100,000 population, which equals approximately 36,000 cases in the United States. However, this disease is probably under diagnosed and the prevalence may be higher. Previous studies showed that women are more often affected than men. The most common age at onset is the second and third decades in women
and the seventh and eighth decades in men. As the population ages, the average age of onset has increased correspondingly, and now males are considered to be more often affected than females, and the onset of symptoms is usually after age 50.
Causes and symptoms
Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune disease caused by abnormal antibodies carried in the blood stream. Nerves release a chemical called acetylcholine (ACh) that activates receptors on muscles to trigger contraction. The normal neuromuscular junction releases ACh from the motor nerve terminal in discrete packages (quanta). The ACh quanta diffuse across the synaptic cleft and bind to receptors on the folded muscle end-plate membrane. Stimulation of the motor nerve releases many ACh quanta that depolarize the muscle end-plate region and then the muscle membrane, causing muscle contraction.
The myasthenia antibodies interfere with this process by binding to specific sites on the surface of the muscles, the post-synaptic muscle membrane is distorted and simplified, having lost its normal folded shape. The most common antibodies are directed against the muscle acetylcholine receptor (AChR). ACh is released normally, but its effect on the post-synaptic membrane is reduced. The post-junctional membrane is less sensitive to applied ACh, and the probability that any nerve impulse will cause a muscle action potential is reduced.
Ten percent of patients with MG have a tumor in the thymus, (a thymoma) that is usually benign, and 70% have changes (germinal centers) that indicate an active immune response. These are areas within lymphoid tissue where B-cells interact with helper T-cells to produce antibodies. Because the thymus is the central organ for immunological self-tolerance, it is reasonable to suspect that thymic abnormalities cause the breakdown in tolerance that leads to
There are very rare genetic abnormalities that cause problems similar to myasthenia gravis. These diseases are called congenital or inherited myasthenias and usually are present in infants. MG is not directly inherited, nor is it contagious. Occasionally, the disease may occur in more than one member of the same family. Rarely, children may show signs of congenital (present at birth) myasthenia or congenital myasthenic syndrome. These are not autoimmune disorders, but are caused by defective genes that control proteins in the acetylcholine receptor or in acetyl-cholinesterase. In neonatal myasthenia that develops in 10–20% of infants born to mothers who have MG, the fetus may acquire immune proteins (antibodies) from a mother affected with MG. Generally, cases of neonatal myasthenia are transient and the child's symptoms usually disappear within few weeks after birth.
Although MG may affect any voluntary muscle, muscles that control eye and eyelid movement, facial expression, and swallowing are most frequently affected. The onset of the disorder may be sudden. Symptoms often are not immediately recognized as myasthenia gravis. In most cases, the first noticeable symptom is weakness of the eye muscles. In others, difficulty in swallowing and slurred speech may be the first signs. The degree of muscle weakness involved in this disease varies greatly among patients, ranging from a localized form, limited to eye muscles (ocular myasthenia), to a severe or generalized form in which many muscles, sometimes including those that control breathing, are affected. Symptoms, which vary in type and severity, may include a drooping of one or both eyelids (ptosis), blurred or double vision (diplopia) due to weakness of the muscles that control eye movements, unstable or waddling gait, weakness in arms, hands, fingers, legs, and neck, a change in facial expression, difficulty in swallowing and shortness of breath, and impaired speech (dysarthria).
A delay in diagnosis of one or two years is not unusual in cases of MG. Because weakness is a common symptom of many other disorders, the diagnosis is often missed in people who experience mild weakness or in those individuals whose weakness is restricted to only a few muscles. The first steps of diagnosing MG include a review of the individual's medical history, and physical and neurological examinations. The signs a physician must look for are impairment of eye movements or muscle weakness without any changes in the individual's ability to feel things. If the physician suspects MG, several tests are available to confirm the diagnosis.
The Edrophonium Chloride (Tensilon) Test
This approach requires the intravenous administration of edrophonium chloride or Tensilon(r), a drug that temporarily increases the levels of acetylcholine at the neuromuscular junction. In people with myasthenia gravis involving the eye muscles, the drug will chloride will briefly relieve weakness.
Antibodies Against Acetylcholine Receptor (AChR)
In general, an elevated concentration of AChR binding antibodies in a patient with compatible clinical features confirms the diagnosis of MG, but normal antibody concentrations do not exclude the diagnosis.
Repetitive Nerve Stimulation (RNS)
This test records weakening muscle responses when the nerves are repetitively stimulated, and helps to differentiate nerve disorders from muscle disorders. Repetitive stimulation of a nerve during a nerve conduction study may demonstrate faults of the muscle action potential (CMAP) due to impaired nerve-to-muscle transmission. A significant decrement to RNS in either a hand or shoulder muscle is found in about 60% of patients with MG.
Single fiber electromyogram (SFEMG)
SFEMG is the most sensitive clinical test of neuromuscular transmission and shows increased jitter in some muscles in almost all patients with myasthenia gravis. Jitter is greatest in weak muscles, but may be abnormal even in muscles with normal strength. Patients with mild or purely ocular (eye) muscle weakness may have increased jitter only in facial muscles. Increased jitter is a nonspecific sign of abnormal neuromuscular transmission and can also be seen in other motor diseases.
Computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
Computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be used to identify an abnormal thymus gland or the presence of a thymoma. Pulmonary function testing, which measures breathing strength, helps to predict whether respiration may fail and lead to a myasthenic crisis.
The treatment team is normally composed of a neurologist, a nutritionist (dietary advice), a speech pathologist, a pulmonologist, a geneticist, a neurologist, a
Treatment regimens for myasthenia gravis are practical rather than curative. Treatment decisions are based on knowledge of the natural history of disease in each patient and the predicted response to a specific form of therapy. Treatment goals must be individualized according to the severity of disease, the patient's age and sex, and the degree of functional impairment. The response to any form of treatment is difficult to assess because the severity of symptoms fluctuates. Spontaneous improvement, even remissions, occur without specific therapy, especially during the early stages of the disease.
Cholinesterase inhibitors result in increased ACh accumulation at the neuromuscular junction and prolongs its effect. These drugs cause considerable improvement in some patients and little to none in others. Pyridostigmine bromide (Mestinon) and neostigmine bromide (Prostigmin) are the most commonly prescribed cholinesterase inhibitors. No fixed dosage schedule suits all patients. The need for cholinesterase inhibitors varies from day to day and during the same day in response to infection, menstruation, emotional stress, and hot weather. Different muscles respond differently; with any dose, certain muscles become stronger, others do not change, and still others become weaker. Adverse effects of cholinesterase inhibitors include gastrointestinal complaints: queasiness, loose stools, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea.
Thymectomy (removal of the thymus) is recommended for most people with myasthenia gravis. The greatest benefit from the surgery generally occurs two to five years afterwards. However, the response is relatively unpredictable and significant impairment may continue for months or years after surgery. The best responses to thymectomy are in young people early in the course of the disease, but improvement can occur even after 30 years of symptoms. Persons with disease onset after the age of 60 rarely show substantial improvement from thymectomy. Patients with thymomas (tumor on the thymus) do not respond as well to thymectomy as do patients without them.
Marked improvement or complete relief of symptoms occurs in more than 75% of people treated with prednisone, and some improvement occurs in most of the rest. Much of the improvement occurs in the first six to eight weeks of therapy, but strength may increase to total remission in the months that follow. The best responses occur in patients with recent onset of symptoms, but patients with chronic disease may also respond. The severity of disease does not predict the ultimate improvement. Patients with thymoma have an excellent response to prednisone before or after removal of the tumor. About one-third of patients become weaker temporarily after starting prednisone, usually within the first seven to ten days, but this temporary weakness lasts for only a few days. The major disadvantages of chronic corticosteroid therapy are the side effects, such as weight gain and fluid retention.
Azathioprine reverses symptoms in most patients with myasthenia gravis, but the benefits are delayed by four to eight months. Once improvement begins, it is maintained for as long as the drug is given. Symptoms recur two to three months after the drug is discontinued or the dose is reduced below therapeutic levels. Patients who experience no improvement on corticosteroids may respond to azathioprine, and the reverse is also true. Sometimes, people with MG respond better to treatment with both drugs than to either one alone. Because the response to azathioprine is delayed, both drugs may be started simultaneously with the intent of rapidly tapering prednisone when azathioprine becomes effective. Approximately one-third of patients have mild dose-dependent side effects that may require dose reductions, but do not require stopping treatment.
Cyclosporine is sometimes beneficial in treating MG. Most patients with myasthenia gravis improve within two months after starting cyclosporine and improvement is maintained as long as therapeutic doses are given. Maximum improvement is achieved six months or longer after starting treatment. After achieving the maximal response,
Cyclophosphamide is also given intravenously and orally for the treatment of myasthenia gravis. More than half of patients receiving cyclophosphamide experience a dramatic improvement in their symptoms after one year; however, side effects are common. Life-threatening infections are an important risk for all persons taking immunosuppressant drugs.
Plasma exchange is used as a short-term intervention for patients with sudden worsening of myasthenic symptoms, to rapidly improve strength before surgery, and as a chronic intermittent treatment for patients who are refractory to all other treatments. The need for plasma exchange and its frequency of use is determined by the clinical response in the individual patient. Almost all patients with acquired MG improve temporarily following plasma exchange. Maximum improvement may be reached as early as after the first exchange or as late as the fourteenth. Improvement lasts for weeks or months and then the effect is lost unless the exchange is followed by thymectomy or immunosuppressive therapy. Most patients who respond to the first plasma exchange will respond again to subsequent courses. Repeated exchanges do not have a cumulative benefit.
Intravenous immune globulin (IVIG)
Immune globulin given intravenously results in improvement in more than half of MG patients, usually beginning within one week of therapy and lasting for several weeks or months.
Recovery and rehabilitation
Physical and occupational therapists provide strategies to help people with myasthenia gravis maintain daily activities during almost all phases of the disease. As the progression of symptoms occurs over months or years, these strategies adapt to the changing needs of the person with myasthenia gravis. For example, wheelchairs, specialized eating utensils, and positioning aids might be required during the progressive phase. When improvement is made, shower stools, rolling carts for carrying shopping items, and exercises to promote maintenance of posture can all help avoid fatigue. While the symptoms of the disease may go into remission, recovery is not said to be complete, as symptoms may recur. The longer the person remains in remission; however, the greater is the chance that the disease will not recur
As of February 2004, there were two open clinical trials for MG, both sponsored by the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois:
- Study of CellCept in the Treatment of MG: This is a multicenter, placebo-controlled study testing CellCept and prednisone as the initial form of immunotherapy in the treatment of MG. The purpose of the study is to determine if the combination of these two medications provides better control of MG symptoms compared with prednisone alone.
- Study of Etanercept Among Individuals With MG: The purpose of the study is to determine if Etanercept improves muscle strength in patients with MG.
Up-to-date information on clinical trials can be found at the United States government website for clinical trials located at <www.clinicaltrials.org>.
Symptoms of myasthenia gravis usually progress to maximum severity within three years. After that time, persons with MG normally stabilize or improve. With treatment, the outlook for most patients with MG is bright: they will have significant improvement of their muscle weakness and they can expect to lead normal or nearly normal lives.
Many people's MG symptoms may go into remission temporarily and muscle weakness may disappear completely, so that medications can be discontinued. Stable, long-lasting complete remissions are the goal of thymus removal (thymectomy). In a few cases, the severe weakness of MG may cause a crisis (respiratory failure), which requires immediate emergency medical care. Advances in medical care have reduced the mortality rate from respiratory failure in myasthenia gravis patients to approximately three percent. Patients over the age of 40, those with a short history of severe disease, and those with thymoma tend to have less significant improvement.
Myasthenia gravis cannot be prevented, but avoiding the following triggers may help patients prevent exacerbations (worsening of symptoms):
- emotional stress
- exposure to extreme temperatures
- illness (e.g., respiratory infection, pneumonia, tooth abscess)
- low levels of potassium in the blood (hypokalemia; caused by diuretics, frequent vomiting)
- some medications, such as muscle relaxants, anticonvulsants, and certain antibiotics
Henderson, Ronald E. Attacking Myasthenia Gravis. Seattle: Court Street Press, 2002.
Icon Health Publications. The Official Patient's Sourcebook on Myasthenia Gravis: A Revised and Updated Directory for the Internet Age. San Diego: Icon Grp. Int., 2002.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. "Myasthenia Gravis Fact Sheet." <http://www.ninds.nih.gov/health_and_medical/pubs/myasthenia_gravis.htm> (February 11, 2004).
Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America, Inc. 5841 Cedar Lake Road Suite 204, Minneapolis, MN 55416. (952) 545-9438 or (800) 541-5454; Fax: (952) 646-2028. email@example.com. <http://www.myasthenia.org>.
Beatriz Alves Vianna
Iuri Drumond Louro
Table Of Contents
- Causes and symptoms
- The Edrophonium Chloride (Tensilon) Test
- Antibodies Against Acetylcholine Receptor (AChR)
- Repetitive Nerve Stimulation (RNS)
- Single fiber electromyogram (SFEMG)
- Computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Treatment team
- Cholinesterase inhibitors
- Immunosuppressant drugs
- Plasma exchange
- Intravenous immune globulin (IVIG)
- Recovery and rehabilitation
- Clinical trials
- Special concerns