Autoimmune Disorders: Myasthenia gravis
Myasthenia gravis (MG) is a long-term neuromuscular disease that leads to varying degrees of skeletal muscle weakness. The most commonly affected muscles are those of the eyes, face, and swallowing. It can result in double vision, drooping eyelids, trouble talking, and trouble walking. Onset can be sudden. Those affected often have a large thymus or develop a thymoma.
Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune disease which results from antibodies that block or destroy nicotinic acetylcholine receptors at the junction between the nerve and muscle.This prevents nerve impulses from triggering muscle contractions. Rarely, an inherited genetic defect in the neuromuscular junction results in a similar condition known as congenital myasthenia. Babies of mothers with myasthenia may have symptoms during their first few months of life, known as neonatal myasthenia. Diagnosis can be supported by blood tests for specific antibodies, the edrophonium test, or a nerve conduction study.
Myasthenia gravis is generally treated with medications known as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors such as neostigmine and pyridostigmine. Immunosuppressants, such as prednisone or azathioprine, may also be used. The surgical removal of the thymus may improve symptoms in certain cases. Plasmapheresis and high dose intravenous immunoglobulin may be used during sudden flares of the condition. If the breathing muscles become significantly weak, mechanical ventilation may be required.
MG affects 50 to 200 per million people. It is newly diagnosed in three to 30 per million people each year. Diagnosis is becoming more common due to increased awareness. It most commonly occurs in women under the age of 40 and in men over the age of 60. It is uncommon in children. With treatment, most of those affected lead relatively normal lives and have a normal life expectancy. The word is from the Greek "mys" "muscle" and "astheneia" "weakness", and the Latin "gravis" "serious".
Signs and symptoms
The initial, main symptom in MG is painless weakness of specific muscles, not fatigue. The muscle weakness becomes progressively worse during periods of physical activity and improves after periods of rest. Typically, the weakness and fatigue are worse toward the end of the day. MG generally starts with ocular (eye) weakness; it might then progress to a more severe generalized form, characterized by weakness in the extremities or in muscles that govern basic life functions.
In about two-thirds of individuals, the initial symptom of MG is related to the muscles around the eye. There may be eyelid drooping (ptosis due to weakness of levator palpebrae superioris) and double vision (diplopia, due to weakness of the extraocular muscles). Eye symptoms tend to get worse when watching television, reading, or driving, particularly in bright conditions. Consequently, some affected individuals choose to wear sunglasses. The term "ocular myasthenia gravis" describes a subtype of MG where muscle weakness is confined to the eyes, i.e. extraocular muscles, levator palpebrae superioris, and orbicularis oculi. Typically, this subtype evolves into generalized MG, usually after a few years.
The weakness of the muscles involved in swallowing may lead to swallowing difficulty (dysphagia). Typically, this means that some food may be left in the mouth after an attempt to swallow, or food and liquids may regurgitate into the nose rather than go down the throat (velopharyngeal insufficiency). Weakness of the muscles that move the jaw (muscles of mastication) may cause difficulty chewing. In individuals with MG, chewing tends to become more tiring when chewing tough, fibrous foods. Difficulty in swallowing, chewing, and speaking is the first symptom in about one-sixth of individuals.
Weakness of the muscles involved in speaking may lead to dysarthria and hypophonia. Speech may be slow and slurred, or have a nasal quality. In some cases, a singing hobby or profession must be abandoned.
Head and neck
Due to weakness of the muscles of facial expression and muscles of mastication, facial weakness may manifest as the inability to hold the mouth closed (the "hanging jaw sign") and as a snarling expression when attempting to smile. With drooping eyelids, facial weakness may make the individual appear sleepy or sad. Difficulty in holding the head upright may occur.
The muscles that control breathing (dyspnea) and limb movements can also be affected; rarely do these present as the first symptoms of MG, but develop over months to years. In a myasthenic crisis, a paralysis of the respiratory muscles occurs, necessitating assisted ventilation to sustain life. Crises may be triggered by various biological stressors such as infection, fever, an adverse reaction to medication, or emotional stress.
Journal of Autoimmune Disorders