Last updated Jan. 10, 2022, by Marisa Wexler, MS
Fact-checked by José Lopes, PhD
Muscular dystrophy is a genetic disease that results in progressive muscle weakness. In addition to affecting muscles needed for movement, this weakness can also affect the muscles that move the eyeballs around and that open and close the eyelids.
Weakness in these muscles can result in vision problems and other abnormalities, depending on the type and severity of muscular dystrophy.
Eye problems in different types of muscular dystrophies
Oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy
Oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy is a form of muscular dystrophy that primarily affects the muscles of the eyes and throat. The first symptom is typically ptosis, when the upper eyelid falls or droops because of weakened muscles, that affects both eyes.
This form of muscular dystrophy also can cause paralysis of the muscles that control eye movement — a condition known as ophthalmoplegia — and myopia, or double vision.
Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy
In people with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, weakness of facial muscles can make it difficult to close the eyes completely, referred to as lagophthalmos. Typically one side of the face is more severely affected than the other.
Coats’ disease, a condition characterized by abnormalities in the blood vessels of the eye, may occur in people with this form of muscular dystrophy.
People with myotonic dystrophy can have ptosis. Cataracts, a clouding of the eye lens that can impair vision, also are common among this patient population.
Myotonic dystrophy patients may experience blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelids) and double vision.
Congenital muscular dystrophies
Congenital muscular dystrophies are a group of conditions that lead to muscle weakness and wasting from birth or shortly thereafter. Eye problems are common in several types of congenital muscular dystrophy.
Muscle-eye-brain disease, as the name suggests, is a form of congenital muscular dystrophy in which the eyes are one of the main body parts affected. Uncontrollable eye movements, nearsightedness, and glaucoma (damage to the nerve that connects the eyes to the brain) are common in this disease type.
Many people with Walker-Warburg syndrome experience problems where the eyes are abnormally shaped or sized. Glaucoma and cataracts may also occur.
Those with Fukuyama congenital muscular dystrophy may experience eye problems such as strabismus — when the eyes do not align properly — and cataracts.
Duchenne and Becker muscular dystrophies
Limb-girdle muscular dystrophy and Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy
Management of eye problems
A number of strategies can help to alleviate or manage eye problems associated with muscular dystrophies. Simple measures such as using sunglasses can reduce UV ray exposure, thereby minimizing eye strain and damage. Regular visits to an optometrist can help to monitor eye health.
If symptoms are particularly severe, surgeries may be warranted to help alleviate certain eye problems. For example, specific surgical procedures can help to remove cataracts or to provide support to eye muscles that can help combat ptosis. Because muscular dystrophy patients often have other ongoing health problems, any surgery or anesthesia must be carefully considered because of the risk of complications.
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