With dystonia, the uncontrollable muscle contractions can cause pain and stress. At the Henry Ford Health, our neurology specialists offer complete care with medications, therapy and assistive devices. We work to help minimize your symptoms so you can return to your daily activities.

What is dystonia?

Dystonia is a movement disorder that causes involuntary muscle contractions, producing repetitive movements that interfere with daily activities. The unintentional muscle contractions can cause twisting spasms that can put your body into abnormal, sometimes painful positions. People can develop dystonia at any age.

Dystonia symptoms

Certain symptoms can occur in all forms of dystonia, with abnormal muscle movements that:

  • Begin in one area
  • Worsen with fatigue, stress or prolonged exertion
  • Happen during activities with repetitive movements (handwriting or playing a musical instrument)
  • Become more noticeable or widespread over time

Depending on which area of the body is affected, dystonia can cause a wide range of symptoms and signs, including:

  • Repetitive movements that can resemble tremors
  • Pain and cramps caused by muscle spasms
  • Foot dragging, especially after a long walk or run
  • Handwriting that worsens
  • Difficulty speaking, chewing or swallowing
  • Rapid, uncontrolled eye blinking
  • Sudden twisting of the neck to one side

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Dystonia causes

The causes of dystonia are often unknown. In some cases, people can inherit specific genetic mutations (changes in genes) from their parents. Dystonia can be a symptom of other neurological conditions such as Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease, cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis.

It can also be related to conditions affecting the brain, such as a stroke, brain tumor or traumatic brain injury. Or, it can be a symptom of exposure to certain toxins or infections.

Dystonia care at Henry Ford: Why choose us?

Our neurologists are experts in movement disorders with experience distinguishing among symptoms to determine the underlying causes of dystonia.

Highlights of our program include:

  • Collaborative approach: Our team works together to review the details of your case, combining experience from multiple fields of medicine. Our thorough approach helps us recommend the right treatments for you.
  • Personalized care: We provide all available surgical and nonsurgical treatments for dystonia. As your health needs change over time, we provide ongoing support to help you have a good quality of life.

Dystonia evaluation

There is no single test to confirm dystonia. Our neurologists have advanced training and expertise in recognizing dystonia symptoms and signs.

In our thorough evaluation, we begin with a physical exam and ask you about symptoms and personal and family medical history. We do a neurologic exam to evaluate nerve function, muscle movements, strength, reflexes and other factors.

The evaluation helps us decide what other tests you may need, such as:

  • Lab tests: We test small samples of your blood or urine to check for signs of toxins, infections or other conditions.
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap): We use a needle to take a small sample of cerebrospinal fluid, which surrounds the brain and spinal cord. We test the fluid for signs of infection or other problems.
  • Electrodiagnostics: Tests such as electromyography (EMG) evaluate nerve signals to and from muscles. Learn more about our electromyography (EMG) lab.
  • Genetic testing: Based on our evaluation, we may recommend genetic testing to look for known dystonia-related mutations.
  • Imaging studies: Imaging of the brain, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT), can help rule out other conditions.

Dystonia treatment

Our movement disorder specialists offer comprehensive treatment, including surgical and nonsurgical options, to help control muscle spasms, pain and other symptoms.

Nonsurgical treatment for dystonia

In most cases, we begin with nonsurgical options, and you may need one or more therapies, such as:

  • Medications: You may receive pain relievers and medications that target specific neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that control muscle movement.
  • Botox® injections: We can inject botulinum toxin, or Botox, into specific areas to help relax the muscles and improve abnormal positions. Learn more about Botox for neuromuscular disorders.
  • Rehabilitation therapies: Physical and occupational therapy can help relieve pain and help you maintain your daily activities. Our speech-language pathologists help improve your ability to speak and swallow. Read more about our neurological rehabilitation.
  • Assistive devices: Braces and splints provide support during walking, writing, instrument playing or other activities. Our therapists can also recommend canes, walkers and wheelchairs as necessary.
  • Integrative medicine therapies: With biofeedback, you learn to control muscle tension and other body functions, which can help relieve muscle contractions. Acupuncture, meditation, massage, yoga and other therapies can help you manage stress and relax your muscles. Find out what we offer at the Center for Integrative Medicine.

Learn more about our nonsurgical therapies for movement disorders.

Surgery for dystonia

If nonsurgical treatments don’t provide enough relief, we may recommend surgery:

  • Deep brain stimulation: Henry Ford is a leader in deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery, and our neurosurgeons have extensive expertise in this procedure. Your surgeon implants electrodes in the brain to deliver controlled electrical impulses to reduce muscle contractions. Learn more about deep brain stimulation.
  • Baclofen pump therapy: Our surgeons implant a pump that delivers baclofen, a muscle relaxant, to the area around the spinal cord. Find out how baclofen pump therapy helps relieve muscle  spasms and other symptoms.

Learn more about our process for movement disorder evaluation and treatment options.

Make an appointment

Let us help you schedule an appointment, call (800) 436-7936.


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