Dystonia is the term used to describe uncontrollable and sometimes painful muscle spasms caused by incorrect signals from the brain. It is estimated to affect at least 70,000 people in the UK.
Dystonia is a neurological movement disorder. Faulty signals from the brain cause muscles to spasm and pull on the body incorrectly. This forces the body into twisting, repetitive movements or abnormal postures. Unfortunately there is not yet a cure. However, in the vast majority of cases, dystonia does not impact intelligence or shorten a person's life span. Dystonia is thought to originate in part of the brain called the basal ganglia.
Treatments are available and most people do manage to develop successful strategies for living with dystonia combining treatment with pain control and sensory tricks to help with social situations. Remission from symptoms does sometimes occur but is rare – occurring in around 5-10% of cases.
Dystonia which starts in adult life usually remains focal to one part of the body. If dystonia starts in childhood, it tends to spread across multiple parts of the body. Click here to learn more about specific types of dystonia.
These dystonias are limited to specific parts of the body. Symptoms generally appear between the ages of 30 and 50 (except eye dystonia where they usually start between ages 50 and 70) although sometimes symptoms can appear earlier or later. Generally, focal dystonias starting in adulthood affect only one part of the body. If they spread at all, which is unlikely, it is usually only to one other area. The progress of focal dystonia is unpredictable with symptoms varying from day to day. Typically, a focal dystonia will progress gradually over a five-year period and then progress no further. Common focal dystonias include:
- Neck dystonia (the medical term is cervical dystonia or spasmodic torticollis)
- Eye dystonia (the medical term is blepharospasm)
- Mouth, tongue or jaw dystonia (the medical term is oromandibular)
- Voice dystonia (the medical term is laryngeal dystonia or spasmodic dysphonia)
- Focal hand dystonia (which includes task specific dystonias such as writer's cramp and musician's cramp).
Dystonias affecting multiple parts of the body
There are a number of different types of dystonia that affect more than one part of the body. These usually start in childhood or early adulthood and include:
- Generalised dystonia which affects most of the body frequently involving the back and trunk
- Myoclonus dystonia where jerking movements occur with dystonia
- Paroxysmal dystonia which affects the whole or part of the body in brief episodes
- Dopa responsive dystonia which is a rare form of dystonia that responds to treatment with levadopa
- Hemidystonia where only one side of the body is affected
Secondary dystonias are dystonias caused by damage or degeneration of the brain or abnormal response to certain medications. There are more than 50 causes of secondary dystonia which include:
- Tardive dystonia is the result of an abnormal response to certain medications
- Dystonic cerebral palsy is a dystonia caused by damage to the developing foetal or infant brain
- Dystonia resulting from Parkinson's disease
- Dystonia caused by metabolic disorders
- Dystonia caused by brain injury or damage
Functional dystonia is a condition where some specific symptoms of dystonia appear but tests that normally establish the cause of these symptoms are negative.
Dystonia and pain
Some people with dystonia report experiencing pain while others report none. Pain is most commonly experienced by those with neck dystonia and/or generalised dystonia although some people with other types also report experiencing pain. To read more about managing pain click here.
Dystonia and mental health
Mental health is a sensitive topic for many people with dystonia as many cases of dystonia are initially mistaken for a mental health (or psychological) condition. In the vast majority of cases, dystonia is a neurological illness and does not have a mental health cause.
However, it is also increasingly understood, that although mental health conditions do not normally cause dystonia, there can be an important inter-relationship in some cases between dystonia and mental health conditions such as stress, depression and anxiety. This relationship can be two way. Click here to read more about dystonia and mental health.
Last reviewed July 2013
The Dystonia Society provides the information on this page as general information only. It is not intended to provide instruction and you should not rely on this information to determine diagnosis, prognosis or a course of treatment. It should not be used in place of a professional consultation with a doctor.
The Dystonia Society is not responsible for the consequences of your decisions resulting from the use of this information, including, but not limited to, your choosing to seek or not to seek professional medical care, or from choosing or not choosing specific treatment based on the information. You should not disregard the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider because of any information you receive from us. If you have any health care questions, please consult the relevant medical practitioner.