Muscular dystrophy refers to a class of genetic disorders characterized by progressive muscle weakness and loss of muscular control. Different types of muscular dystrophy mainly affect different muscle groups.
People with muscular dystrophy often have difficulty walking, and they may have problems with muscle control in other tasks, such as dressing or brushing their teeth. As muscles weaken, many patients experience muscle spasms, which are twitches or cramps that may be painful and also make fine muscle control more difficult.
Breathing and heart problems
In addition to causing weakness in the muscles needed for movement, muscular dystrophy can affect the heart muscles needed to pump blood through the body, as well as muscles such as the diaphragm that are necessary for the physical act of bringing air in and out of the lungs.
This can cause heart problems such as cardiomopathy (disease of the heart muscle), abnormal heart rhythms, and ultimately the heart’s inability to adequately supply blood to the body (heart failure).
Breathing problems such as shortness of breath or an abnormally weak cough also can occur. These symptoms can contribute to difficulty sleeping and fatigue.
Muscle weakness in the muscles of the torso can make it difficult for patients to hold their spine in alignment. This can lead to scoliosis, which is an abnormal sideways bend or curvature of the spine. Scoliosis can reduce the amount of space within the chest, which may contribute to breathing problems.
Muscular dystrophy patients often experience fatigue as a result of muscle weakness. Heart problems, difficulty getting enough oxygen, mood issues, and sleep problems also can contribute to fatigue in people with muscular dystrophy.
Fatigue can be acute — feeling tired while doing an activity that takes energy — or chronic, when a person feels tired all the time regardless of how active they are.
Some types of muscular dystrophy can affect the muscles involved in vision, controlling how much light reaches the back of the eye and eye movement, all of which can make it difficult for patients to see. Some types of muscular dystrophy also can make patients more likely to develop cataracts — cloudy occlusions in the lens of the eye that block vision.
Cognitive and mood abnormalities
Some types of muscular dystrophy are associated with learning disabilities or cognitive problems. While it’s not totally clear why this connection exists, some evidence suggests certain mutations that cause muscular dystrophy also may lead to abnormal activity of brain cells.
Patients may experience dyslexia (reading disorder), dyscalculia (mathematics disorder), and/or dysgraphia (disorder of written communication).
People with muscular dystrophy may have memory problems, particularly with short-term or working memory. They also may have trouble with executive functioning — the processes needed to complete goal-oriented behaviors, like planning necessary steps to overcome obstacles when they encounter them.
People with muscular dystrophy are at increased risk of mental health problems like anxiety and depression.
Last updated: Dec. 8, 2021
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