Dystonia is a medical term for a range of movement disorders that cause muscle spasms and contractions.
The spasms and contractions may either be sustained or may come and go.
Movements are often repetitive and cause unusual, awkward and sometimes painful postures. Tremor (shaking) can also be a characteristic of some types of dystonia.
Dystonia is thought to be a neurological condition (caused by underlying problems with the brain and nervous system). However, in most cases, brain functions such as intelligence, memory and language remain unaffected.
Dystonia can affect only one muscle or a group of muscles. There are five main types of dystonia:
About 90% of all cases are either cervical dystonia (which affects the neck muscles) or blepharospasm (which affects the eyelids). These are both focal dystonias that tend to develop later in life. They don’t usually get any worse and no other muscles are affected.
Read more about the symptoms of dystonia.
Exactly how dystonia develops remains uncertain, but it's thought to be caused by a problem with the part of the brain that controls muscle movement (the basal ganglia).
If there's no identifiable cause of dystonia, or if the cause is genetic, it's described as primary dystonia.
Read more about the causes of dystonia.
Dystonia is diagnosed by a specialist examining and recognising the typical symptoms. The type of dystonia is then classified by which area of the body is affected.
When diagnosing dystonia, it's important to confirm whether you have primary or secondary dystonia, because this may determine the type of treatment you need.
If you have typical signs of late-onset focal dystonia, specific investigations may not be required. However, tests may be needed to confirm whether you have primary or secondary dystonia. These may include brain scans, urine or blood tests, and genetic testing.
Read more about how dystonia is diagnosed.
There's no cure for dystonia, but the condition can usually be effectively managed.
Treatment will vary, depending on the type of dystonia you have and the precise nature of your symptoms. However, the four main types of treatment are:
Read more about how dystonia is treated.
Dystonia is an unpredictable condition. It tends to progress slowly and the severity of a person's symptoms can vary from one day to another.
Focal dystonia usually progresses gradually over a period of about five years and then doesn't get any worse.
Sometimes, a person's symptoms improve or disappear completely. This is known as total remission and it's thought to occur in around 5-10% of people.
Total remission is more likely in cases of secondary dystonia, such as dystonia that occurs after a stroke. If someone has another underlying condition, such as Parkinson’s disease, the symptoms of dystonia are more likely to last for the rest of their lives.
Dystonia is generally uncommon, although it's one of the more common neurological conditions.
Dystonia can affect men, women and children. It can be difficult to diagnose, and there may be many people with the condition who remain undiagnosed.
The Dystonia Society estimates that at least 70,000 people are affected by dystonia in the UK. At least 8,000 of these are children and young people.