You may not realize it, but your muscles are always working – even when you’re not. When your muscles are in “resting tone,” there’s always a small degree of contraction. But sometimes, doctors say, abnormal brain circuits can cause too much “tone” in a particular muscle, muscle group or even the entire body, leading to abnormal contraction or twisting of one’s hand, arm or leg. It’s a condition known as “dystonia” – Greek for “dys” (bad or abnormal) and “tonia” (tone).
“Dystonia is a neurological disorder characterized by excessive involuntary muscle contractions,” says Justin Sporrer, M.D., a neurosurgeon with Miami Neuroscience Institute, who specializes in general neurosurgery, functional neurosurgery and deep brain stimulation for movement disorders. “For some patients, these contractions can result in repetitive movements or abnormal postures, which can make it difficult for them to control movement and thus impact their quality of life in many ways.”
Dr. Sporrer says dystonia is not a common disease, and it can also be a symptom of a larger problem, such as Parkinson’s Disease. “Only 16 in 100,000 people are diagnosed with dystonia each year,” he says. “Some people experience repetitive movement that can resemble a tremor but a far more common symptom is the contraction or twisting of the hand, arm or leg into an abnormal posture.”
Dystonia can affect anyone at any age, according to Dr. Sporrer, and some people may have a genetic predisposition to the disease. “But,” he says, “more aggressive genetic forms tend to surface in childhood.”
Treatment for dystonia can encompass a combination of modalities, including medication, physical therapy and deep brain stimulation (DBS). The specialists at Miami Neuroscience Institute are pioneers of DBS treatment, a non-invasive procedure that uses electrical stimulation in the brain to help control abnormal body movements.
“DBS is a minimally invasive procedure that takes approximately four to six hours, and we’ve had great outcomes with this,” Dr. Sporrer says. “Following surgery, your symptoms should immediately improve, and you may even be able to reduce the number of medicines you take to control symptoms.”
Some patients can also find relief with a simple touch or action that releases the abnormal contraction, he says. “It’s basically a sensory trick that works like a key inserted in a lock that releases the abnormal circuitry causing the contraction.”
If you or a loved one has symptoms consistent with dystonia, Dr. Sporrer recommends seeking expert care with a movement disorder specialist. “There is a lot of symptom overlap with dystonia and other movement disorders, so an accurate diagnosis is essential,” he cautions. “At Miami Neuroscience Institute, we have some of the nation’s top movement disorder experts, and all of the different treatment options available under one roof.”