August 18, 2021

This disorder causes muscles to contract involuntarily. More about symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.

Dystonia is a broad category of movement disorders characterized by either ongoing or on-and-off muscle contractions. These can cause abnormal repetitive movements and/or abnormal postures of the head, neck, torso, or limbs. Dystonia can affect your entire body or a certain part. The movements can sometimes cause pain. 

There are different types of dystonia, depending on which part of your body is affected:

  • Hemidystonia affects a leg and arm on one side of your body. 
  • Focal dystonia affects one particular area of your body, such as abnormal hand posture when writing.
  • Multifocal dystonia affects at least two different parts of your body. 
  • Segmental dystonia affects at least two parts of your body that are next to each other. 
  • Generalized dystonia affects areas all over your body. 

What causes dystonia?

Dystonia is believed to happen because of dysfunction in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. This is where the brain processes information that helps control movement. Some forms are genetic; you inherit them. Some forms can be a side effect of certain medications. Dystonia can also be caused by a stroke or other injury to the brain. Sometimes the cause is not found. 

What are the symptoms of dystonia?

Symptoms may start slowly. For example, you might notice that your handwriting is worsening. You may get cramps in your feet or you may lose control over your foot; it may contract or drag along. The first signs can appear at any age.

Other symptoms can include:

  • Rapid blinking that you can’t stop.
  • A sudden tightening or turning of your neck to one side, especially when you’re feeling fatigued or stressed.
  • Trouble speaking.
  • A tremor affecting the head or the voice.

Symptoms may stay the same or get worse over time. Some types of movement disorder may be associated with other movement problems, such as Parkinson’s disease, or with psychiatric symptoms.

How is dystonia diagnosed?

Diagnosing dystonia is a multi-step process because no single test can give a complete answer. Your health care provider will usually do a physical exam, assess your symptoms and take a personal and family history. 

Tests that help diagnosis include:

  • An MRI or CT imaging scan of the brain
  • Genetic tests to look for known defects linked to dystonia 
  • Analysis of blood, urine and cerebrospinal fluid 
  • Electroencephalography (EEG) or electromyography (EMG)

How is dystonia treated?

Treatment may involve a combination of things to help manage pain and reduce muscle spasms, including:

  • Medication
  • Managing stress
  • Biofeedback
  • Physical or speech therapy
  • Wearing a splint on affected parts of your body
  • Treating an underlying health problem that’s causing the dystonia
  • Nerve injections
  • Surgery, including deep brain stimulation
Middle aged couple in soft focus sitting next to each other looking away in the distance.

The Movement Disorders Clinic at Vanderbilt University Medical Center provides comprehensive care to people experiencing involuntary and excess movement; problems with balance and coordination; muscle rigidity; slow movement; or other symptoms. We specialize in treating Parkinson’s disease, dystonia, tremors and spasticity resulting from stroke, multiple sclerosis and head injuries. Schedule your appointment online or call 615-678-0480.

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