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Myasthenia Gravis

Definition, Description, Causes and symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prognosis, Prevention

Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune disease that causes muscle weakness.

Description

Myasthenia gravis (MG) affects the neuromuscular junction, interrupting the communication between nerve and muscle, and thereby causing weakness. A person with MG may have difficulty moving their eyes, walking, speaking clearly, swallowing, and even breathing, depending on the severity and distribution of weakness. Increased weakness with exertion, and improvement with rest, is a characteristic feature of MG.

About 30,000 people in the United States are affected by MG. It can occur at any age, but is most common in women who are in their late teens and early twenties, and in men in their sixties and seventies.

Causes and symptoms

Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune disease, meaning it is caused by the body's own immune system. In MG, the immune system attacks a receptor on the surface of muscle cells. This prevents the muscle from receiving the nerve impulses that normally make it respond. MG affects "voluntary" muscles, which are those muscles under conscious control responsible for movement. It does not affect heart muscle or the "smooth" muscle found in the digestive system and other internal organs.

A muscle is stimulated to contract when the nerve cell controlling it releases acetylcholine molecules onto its surface. The acetylcholine lands on a muscle protein called the acetylcholine receptor. This leads to rapid chemical changes in the muscle which cause it to contract. Acetylcholine is then broken down by acetyl-cholinesterase enzyme, to prevent further stimulation.

In MG, immune cells create antibodies against the acetylcholine receptor. Antibodies are proteins normally involved in fighting infection. When these antibodies attach to the receptor, they prevent it from receiving acetylcholine, decreasing the ability of the muscle to respond to stimulation.

Why the immune system creates these self-reactive "autoantibodies" is unknown, although there are several hypotheses:

  • During fetal development, the immune system generates many B cells that can make autoantibodies, but B cells that could harm the body's own tissues are screened out and destroyed before birth. It is possible that the stage is set for MG when some of these cells escape detection.
  • Genes controlling other parts of the immune system, called MHC genes, appear to influence how susceptible a person is to developing autoimmune disease.
  • Infection may trigger some cases of MG. When activated, the immune system may mistake portions of the acetylcholine receptor for portions of an invading virus, though no candidate virus has yet been identified conclusively.
  • About 10% of those with MG also have thymomas, or benign tumors of the thymus gland. The thymus is a principal organ of the immune system, and researchers speculate that thymic irregularities are involved in the progression of MG.

Some or all of these factors (developmental, genetic, infectious, and thymic) may interact to create the autoimmune reaction.

The earliest symptoms of MG often result from weakness of the extraocular muscles, which control eye movements. Symptoms involving the eye (ocular symptoms) include double vision (diplopia), especially when not gazing straight ahead, and difficulty raising the eyelids (ptosis). A person with ptosis may need to tilt their head back to see. Eye-related symptoms remain the only symptoms for about 15% of MG patients. Another common early symptom is difficulty chewing and swallowing, due to weakness in the bulbar muscles, which are in the mouth and throat. Choking becomes more likely, especially with food that requires extensive chewing.

Weakness usually becomes more widespread within several months of the first symptoms, reaching their maximum within a year in two-thirds of patients. Weakness may involve muscles of the arms, legs, neck, trunk, and face, and affect the ability to lift objects, walk, hold the head up, and speak.

Symptoms of MG become worse upon exertion, and better with rest. Heat, including heat from the sun, hot showers, and hot drinks, may increase weakness. Infection and stress may worsen symptoms. Symptoms may vary from day to day and month to month, with intervals of no weakness interspersed with a progressive decline in strength.

"Myasthenic crisis" may occur, in which the breathing muscles become too weak to provide adequate respiration. Symptoms include weak and shallow breathing, shortness of breath, pale or bluish skin color, and a racing heart. Myasthenic crisis is an emergency condition requiring immediate treatment. In patients treated with anti-cholinesterase agents, myasthenic crisis must be differentiated from cholinergic crisis related to overmedication.

Pregnancy worsens MG in about one third of women, has no effect in one third, and improves symptoms in another third. About 12% of infants born to women with MG have "neonatal myasthenia," a temporary but potentially life-threatening condition. It is caused by the transfer of maternal antibodies into the fetal circulation just before birth. Symptoms include weakness, floppiness, feeble cry, and difficulty feeding. The infant may have difficulty breathing, requiring the use of a ventilator. Neonatal myasthenia usually clears up within a month.

Diagnosis

Myasthenia gravis is often diagnosed accurately by a careful medical history and a neuromuscular exam, but several tests are used to confirm the diagnosis. Other conditions causing worsening of bulbar and skeletal muscles must be considered, including drug-induced myasthenia, thyroid disease, Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome, botulism, and inherited muscular dystrophies.

MG causes characteristic changes in the electrical responses of muscles that may be observed with an electromyogram, which measures muscular response to electrical stimulation. Repetitive nerve stimulation leads to reduction in the height of the measured muscle response, reflecting the muscle's tendency to become fatigued.

Blood tests may confirm the presence of the anti-body to the acetylcholine receptor, though up to a quarter of MG patients will not have detectable levels. A chest x ray or chest computed tomography scan (CT scan) may be performed to look for thymoma.

Treatment

While there is no cure for myasthenia gravis, there are a number of treatments that effectively control symptoms in most people.

Edrophonium (Tensilon) blocks the action of acetyl-cholinesterase, prolonging the effect of acetylcholine and increasing strength. An injection of edrophonium rapidly leads to a marked improvement in most people with MG. An alternate drug, neostigmine, may also be used.

Pyridostigmine (Mestinon) is usually the first drug tried. Like edrophonium, pyridostigmine blocks acetyl-cholinesterase. It is longer-acting, taken by mouth, and well-tolerated. Loss of responsiveness and disease progression combine to eventually make pyridostigmine ineffective in tolerable doses in many patients.

Thymectomy, or removal of the thymus gland, has increasingly become standard treatment for MG. Up to 85% of people with MG improve after thymectomy, with complete remission eventually seen in about 30%. The improvement may take months or even several years to fully develop. Thymectomy is not usually recommended for children with MG, since the thymus continues to play an important immune role throughout childhood.

Immune-suppressing drugs are used to treat MG if response to pyridostigmine and thymectomy are not adequate. Drugs include corticosteroids such as prednisone, and the non-steroids azathioprine (Imuran) and cyclosporine (Sandimmune).

Plasma exchange may be performed to treat myasthenic crisis or to improve very weak patients before thymectomy. In this procedure, blood plasma is removed and replaced with purified plasma free of autoantibodies. It can produce a temporary improvement in symptoms, but is too expensive for long-term treatment. Another blood treatment, intravenous immunoglobulin therapy, is also used for myasthenic crisis. In this procedure, large quantities of purified immune proteins (immunoglobulins) are injected. For unknown reasons, this leads to symptomatic improvement in up to 85% of patients. It is also too expensive for long-term treatment.

People with weakness of the bulbar muscles may need to eat softer foods that are easier to chew and swallow. In more severe cases, it may be necessary to obtain nutrition through a feeding tube placed into the stomach (gastrostomy tube).

Prognosis

Most people with MG can be treated successfully enough to prevent their condition from becoming debilitating. In some cases, however, symptoms may worsen even with vigorous treatment, leading to generalized weakness and disability. MG rarely causes early death except from myasthenic crisis.

Prevention

There is no known way to prevent myasthenia gravis. Thymectomy improves symptoms significantly in many patients, and relieves them entirely in some. Avoiding heat can help minimize symptoms.

Some drugs should be avoided by people with MG because they interfere with normal neuromuscular function.

Drugs to be avoided or used with caution include:

  • many types of antibiotics, including erythromycin, streptomycin, and ampicillin
  • some cardiovascular drugs, including Verapamil, betaxolol, and propranolol
  • some drugs used in psychiatric conditions, including chlorpromazine, clozapine, and lithium.

Many other drugs may worsen symptoms as well, so patients should check with the doctor who treats their MG before taking any new drugs.

A Medic-Alert card or bracelet provides an important source of information to emergency providers about the special situation of a person with MG. They are available from health care providers.

Resources

BOOKS

Swash, Michael, and Martin Schwarz. Neuromuscular Diseases: A Practical Approach to Diagnosis and Management. Springer, 1997.

PERIODICALS

Drachman, D. B. "Myasthenia Gravis." New England Journal of Medicine 330 (1994): 1797-1810.

Robinson, Richard. "The Body At War with Itself." Quest 4, no. 3 (1997): 20-24.

ORGANIZATIONS

Muscular Dystrophy Association. 3300 East Sunrise Drive, Tucson, AZ 85718. (800) 572-1717. <http://www.mdausa.org>.

Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America. 222 S. Riverside Plaza, Suite 1540, Chicago, IL 60606. (800) 541-5454. <http://www.med.unc.edu>.

Richard Robinson

KEY TERMS


Antibody—An immune protein normally used by the body for combating infection and which is made by B cells.

Autoantibody—An antibody that reacts against part of the self.

Autoimmune disease—A disease caused by a reaction of the body's immune system.

Bulbar muscles—Muscles that control chewing, swallowing, and speaking.

Neuromuscular junction—The site at which nerve impulses are transmitted to muscles.

Pyridostigmine bromide (Mestinon)—An anti-cholinesterase drug used in treating myasthenia gravis.

Tensilon test—A test for diagnosing myasthenia gravis. Tensilon is injected into a vein and, if the person has MG, their muscle strength will improve for about five minutes.

Thymus gland—A small gland located just above the heart, involved in immune system development.

Additional topics

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