Myasthenia Gravis (MG) is a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease that affects about 50,000 people in the United States. It directly targets the nerve receptor sites, known as acetylcholine receptors, of the muscles and nerves. People with MG experience varying degrees of weakness in their facial and neck muscles, speech and swallowing due to these receptor sites being blocked.
A diagnosis of Myasthenia Gravis is not as simple as pointing out a few symptoms; there are different levels of severity and fluctuating factors that come into play. Because of this, there are several considerations when diagnosing someone with MG. If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with myasthenia gravis (or is experiencing its symptoms), here is everything you need to know about it:
What is Myasthenia Gravis?
Myasthenia gravis is defined as a degenerative neuromuscular disease that is the result of antibodies that attack the acetylcholine receptors of the muscles. It can affect all muscles, but the most common ones are those in the eyes, face, neck and throat. MG is not curable. However, some treatments can help manage the symptoms and lessen their severity, enabling people to lead normal and healthy life. MG is often misdiagnosed, as many of its symptoms are similar to those of other conditions. Therefore, it is important to rule out all other conditions before diagnosing someone with myasthenia gravis.
Symptoms of Myasthenia Gravis
The most common and noticeable symptom of myasthenia gravis is the fluctuation of muscle strength. When the symptoms first develop, the muscles may be extremely weak, which can cause difficulty with speaking and swallowing. As the disease progresses, the muscles may get stronger and weaker throughout the day and even from day to day.
This fluctuation can be attributed to the autoimmune response attacking the acetylcholine receptors on the muscles. Other symptoms of myasthenia gravis include:
- General weakness: While the muscles of the limbs and trunk may be affected, the primary muscles that are affected are the muscles of the face and jaw, and the muscles controlling eye movement and eyelids.
- Drooping eyelids or a droopy face: This is caused by weakness in the muscles used to close the eyelids or keep the mouth closed.
- Slurred speech: This is caused by weakness in the muscles used for speech.
- Difficulty swallowing: This is typically caused by weakness in the muscles that control the throat.
- Problems with breathing: If breathing muscles are affected, a person may have abnormal breathing sounds or shortness of breath.
- Muscle cramps: Aching or painful muscles are common.
- Muscle spasms: This is a sudden, painful tightening of a muscle.
- Muscle tension: Muscle tension, also known as muscle spasticity or increased muscle tone, can cause a muscle to feel stiff or very hard to the touch.
- Muscle wasting or weakness: This is caused by the muscle not getting enough blood.
- Muscle twitch: This is caused by abnormal electrical signals in the nerve, which cause a muscle to tighten or contract.
- Headaches: This can be caused by stress or muscle tension in the face or head.
- Slowing cognitive function
Causes of Myasthenia Gravis
The exact cause of myasthenia gravis is unknown, but researchers believe several possible factors may lead to the autoimmune attack. These factors include genetics, certain infections, certain medications and autoimmune disorders.
Genetics: There is evidence that myasthenia gravis can be inherited. If someone in your family has myasthenia gravis, you have a higher risk of developing the disease.
Infections: Certain infections, such as the Epstein-Barr virus and the cytomegalovirus, have been linked to the development of myasthenia gravis.
Medications: Certain medications, including those used to treat cancer and infectious diseases, have been associated with an increased risk of myasthenia gravis.
Autoimmune disorders: Researchers are still investigating the links between autoimmune disorders and myasthenia gravis.
Treatments for Myasthenia Gravis
Treatment aims to suppress the immune system and prevent it from attacking the acetylcholine receptors. This is done using a medication, immunosuppressants, or both. Once the disease is subdued and the symptoms are under control, a person can be put in a maintenance program that only uses medication on an as-needed basis. There are three types of medications used to treat myasthenia gravis: –
Immunosuppressants: These drugs are used to suppress the immune system. Examples include prednisone and cyclosporine.
Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors: These drugs slow the breakdown of acetylcholine, which helps keep the receptors open. Examples include neostigmine and pyridostigmine.
Myasthenic antibodies: These drugs work by blocking the antibodies that cause myasthenia gravis.
If you experience symptoms of myasthenia gravis, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment can help reduce the severity and progression of the disease. While there is no cure for myasthenia gravis, treatment can help reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.
The earlier you are diagnosed, the sooner you can start treatment. If you have been diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions closely. This is important not only to reduce the severity of the symptoms but also to prevent any complications.