Myasthenia Gravis: A Skeletal Muscle Condition

Autoimmune diseases can lead to different symptoms and can be quite challenging to treat and manage like myasthenia gravis.

Individuals have to learn how to cope with the debilitating effects. Myasthenia gravis is not actually considered serious by many doctors, although the effects can still limit the abilities and capacity of individuals to perform tasks at home and at work. Knowing more about the condition will help patients and families cope better and find solutions to the different effects. Here is a brief overview and the details.

About Myasthenia Gravis

Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune neuromuscular disorder that usually lasts a long time. The general characteristic is weakness of the skeletal muscles. The term in particular stands for “grave muscle weakness” since individuals with the condition experience problems in the way their muscles and nerves communicate. As an autoimmune disease, the antibodies that are supposed to protect the body from various invaders and infections will alter or impede signals sent by the nerves to the muscles. As an effect, individuals will have problems or difficulty controlling and moving various muscles of the body.

Many individuals with myasthenia gravis do not present very serious symptoms. However, the condition can be very noticeable especially if the person displays the common effects like abnormal movement of the eyelids and eyes, changes in the way the person talks or makes facial expressions as well as difficulty in swallowing and chewing. Other muscles may also be affected which might change the way the person breathes or does tasks. The muscles are generally weak because of the differences in the way the signals are received.

Myasthenia Gravis and the Thymus Gland

The thymus gland has a particular role in the development of myasthenia gravis. The thymus gland is located just under the breastbone and has a very essential function in the way the disease occurs.

The cells of the gland will create a portion of the immune system of the human body. The thymus gland among patients with the condition will present a number of abnormalities. Doctors might observe the development of immune cell clusters in the area or the development of tumors or thymomas. These are usually non-cancerous but in rare cases, can become malignant, spread and cause more complications. Because of the abnormalities, autoimmunity occurs which seem to trigger the development of the disorder.

The Causes of Myasthenia Gravis

Myasthenia gravis is triggered by changes or abnormalities in the way impulses are forwarded or sent from the nerves to the muscles. When communication at the neuromuscular junction occurs, changes occur particularly in the skeletal or voluntary muscles of the body. Acetylcholine should normally pass through the junction and then attach to the receptors to initiate muscular contraction. Since the antibodies impede or block the receptors for acetylcholine to bind to, the muscles cannot contract effectively. As an autoimmune disorder, the body mistakenly attacks itself instead of protecting the body against foreign bodies.

People at Risk for Myasthenia Gravis

All individuals can develop myasthenia gravis. However, experts noticed that the problem is more common among women below 40 years old as well as men above 60 years old. There is also a condition called neonatal myasthenia gravis wherein the fetus can get antibodies from the mother who has the disease.

This is usually short term only and symptoms are expected to be gone in just 2 to 3 months after delivery. The condition can also affect young children. The disease is not passed on from one person to the next and cannot be transmitted through body fluids. Rare cases involve the development of congenital myasthenia or related syndromes. These are not autoimmune problems but are generally triggered by problems in the genes that impede the proper binding of acetylcholine to the receptors.

Signs and Symptoms of Myasthenia Gravis

Individuals with myasthenia gravis will generally present symptoms that are related to the skeletal or voluntary muscles of the body. Some of the noticeable differences include changes in eye and eyelid movement, difficulty chewing and swallowing, changes in facial expressions and slurred speech.

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After the initial signs and symptoms, other muscles may also be affected, leading to waddling or unstable gait, weakness in the extremities and neck, weakness in the hands, fingers and toes, shortness of breath, difficulty speaking and inability to lift objects. Problems in eye and eyelid control are the most obvious signs.

These can include other effects like double vision, blurred vision, drooping of one or two eyelids and difficulty moving the eyes. The severity of the symptoms will vary among patients. Some individuals might present mild or minimal symptoms only while others will display severe or generalized symptoms. Localized effects will usually involve the eye muscles only, while generalized effects will involve other muscles like the arms, legs and muscles for breathing.

People at Risk for Myasthenia Gravis

All individuals can develop myasthenia gravis. However, experts noticed that the problem is more common among women below 40 years old as well as men above 60 years old. There is also a condition called neonatal myasthenia gravis wherein the fetus can get antibodies from the mother who has the disease.

This is usually short term only and symptoms are expected to be gone in just 2 to 3 months after delivery. The condition can also affect young children. The disease is not passed on from one person to the next and cannot be transmitted through body fluids. Rare cases involve the development of congenital myasthenia or related syndromes. These are not autoimmune problems but are generally triggered by problems in the genes that impede the proper binding of acetylcholine to the receptors.

Treating Myasthenia Gravis

There are several approaches that will help alleviate the symptoms and effects of myasthenia gravis. Some of the medications that will treat the condition include pyridostigmine, prednisone, neostigmine, azathioprine and cyclosporine. The thymus gland can also be surgically removed. More than half of the patients show improvements after surgery. Other approaches include plasmapheresis and administration of intravenous immune globulin. The treatment approach will depend on the presenting symptoms and response of the patient.