Muscular dystrophy diseases are a group of disorders that affect the muscular system, the skeletal system and other parts of the body. They span across all races and cultures. Muscular dystrophy is chronic and there are no known permanent cures for this disease at this time. Currently, there are only helpful medical treatments that can slow down the disease’s progression.
Some with muscular dystrophy will experience symptoms that make it difficult for them to carry out basic functions. They may have trouble walking, working or living on their own without help. Others deal with less severe symptoms and can carry on living an almost “normal” life for years. Natural ways to help manage muscular dystrophy symptoms include: exercise or physical therapy, lowering inflammation through a healthy diet, using essential oils, trying certain supplements, getting support and managing fear or anxiety.
What Is Muscular Dystrophy?
Muscular dystrophy is a group of related, genetic disorders that cause degeneration of skeletal muscle, skeletal changes, decreased flexibility and other symptoms. There are several types of this disorder, with the most common being Duchenne, Becker’s and Myotonic muscular dystrophy. (1)
To date more than 30 different types of muscular dystrophy have been identified. Of these 30, nine types are the most common. (2) Mutations in genes that affect the structure of muscles cause muscular dystrophies. These gene mutations usually are inherited. While all these dystrophy disorders are related, each type of muscular dystrophy is associated with a unique mutation. Because of this, each causes different symptoms, in different severities, at different times. The nine major forms of muscular dystrophy disease include:
- Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). This is is the most common form, but usually only develops in young males.
- Becker muscular dystrophy (BMD). A less severe type related to Duchenne. It also occurs slightly later in life in most cases.
- Myotonic muscular dystrophy. Usually causes symptoms in adults rather than children.
- Congenital muscular dystrophy
- Limb-Girdle muscular dystrophy
- Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy. Affects muscles of the face and upper body.
- Distal muscular dystrophy
- Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and various other diseases of the central nervous system are also related to muscular dystrophy. They usually cause similar symptoms. (3)
The Most Common Types of Muscular Dystrophy: Duchenne & Becker’s
Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy:
- This form of muscular dystrophy affects males from birth. It usually starts causing symptoms in early childhood, normally before the age of 5. According to the advocate group and website for Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy (PPMD), Duchenne is the most common fatal genetic disorder diagnosed in childhood. It affects approximately 1 in every 3,500 live male births.
- About 20,000 new cases are diagnosed each year worldwide. Duchenne affects only male newborns since the duchenne gene is found on the X-chromosome. Females can be carriers of Duchenne dystrophy, passing it onto their offspring, but won’t actually have the disorder themselves.
- A mutation in the dystrophin gene which codes for the protein called dystrophin causes Duchenne. Dystrophin helps to maintain healthy structural elements of muscle tissue and cell membranes. Without dystrophin, progressive muscle weakness, and eventually death, occurs.
- Symptoms of muscular dystrophy typically appear in infancy or children prior to age 5. Some are not diagnosed with the disorder until symptoms first appear. However, a growing number of laboratory tests are being used to identify those who are likely to have the illness at birth.
Becker’s Muscular Dystrophy:
- A similar gene mutation to Duchenne causes Becker’s, but it’s less severe. While those with Duchenne don’t manufacture dystrophin, those with Becker’s do. However, dystrophin doesn’t work the way it normally does and levels are lower than in healthy people without either disorder.
- Becker’s muscle dystrophy normally starts later than Duchenne’s around age 12. Although it’s also progressive it’s usually less serious than Duchenne and therefore causes less severe symptoms. However, people with Becker’s dystrophy still typically have weakness, heart disease, issues with the curvature of the spine, fatigue, problems with thinking, and breathing difficulties.
Common Symptoms of Muscular Dystrophy
Duchenne and Becker’s muscular dystrophy typically cause the following symptoms: (4)
- Loss of muscle mass, which progressively gets worse with age. Muscle weakness usually starts in the legs and hips. These are typically the first places to display signs of degeneration and abnormal development.
- Weak points in the muscles then spread elsewhere, including to the arms, neck, back and chest. With Duchenne dystrophy symptoms usually progress quickly and accompany exhaustion.
- Other early indications of muscular dystrophy include: pseudo hypertrophy (enlargement of calf and deltoid muscles in the legs and arms), reduced flexibility, reduced endurance or stamina, fatigue, instability, postural changes and problems standing normally.
- Many experience progressively worse issues regarding synchronization and flexibility. Frequent falls might occur due to loss of balance and muscle weakness.
- Joint stiffness and pains
- Fat and fibrotic tissue (fibrosis)replace muscle tissue as time goes by . In many cases a child with Duchenne dystrophy will need help walking or have to use a wheelchair by age 10-12. It becomes harder to do activities like climbing, bending, squatting, etc.
- Abnormal bone development that result in skeletal deformities are also common during childhood. This can include deformities or over-curvature of the spinal column. A curved back and poor posture usually develop during childhood years.
- Eventually reduced range of motion and then near-complete loss of motion occurs, causing paralysis.
- More difficulty breathing and possibly developing pneumonia.
- The most serious symptoms of muscular dystrophy are medical problems that affect vital organs, including the heart and lungs. Those with Duchenne muscular dystrophy usually pass away in their early to mid twenties due to a weak heart and/or very weak lungs.
- It’s very common for patients with muscular dystrophy to struggle with emotional issues including depression, trouble thinking clearly, difficulty learning and anxiety.
Symptoms of Other Types of Muscular Dystrophy:
- Facioscapulohumeral muscle dystrophy (also called Landouzy-Dejerine muscle dystrophy): Symptoms affect mostly the upper body and face. Symptoms can include weak facial and shoulder muscles, trouble with raising the arms overhead, difficulty with controlling the tongue and mouth, trouble closing the eyes, hearing loss, speech problems and abnormal heart tempo. Symptoms typically start around the teenage years or early twenties, between about 10-25.
- Distal muscular dystrophy: Affects the muscles of the extremities including the arms, legs, hands, and feet. Symptoms typically start in middle to late adulthood, between ages 40-60.
- Oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy: Causes muscles of the face, eyes, neck, and shoulders to become weak. Symptoms include droopy eyelids (ptosis), followed by difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or controlling the tongue. Symptoms typically start in middle age, between ages 40-50.
- Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy: Causes heart problems and other symptoms related to degeneration of muscle tissue. Symptoms usually begin during childhood, much more often in males than in females.
Muscular Dystrophy Causes and Risk Factors
Muscular dystrophy usually is an inherited, genetic disorder passed down from parents to their child. However, this isn’t always the case.
Around 35 percent of the time muscular dystrophy occurs due to random spontaneous gene mutations that change protein production. It’s not entirely known why this randomly happens to some. The specific gene mutation that’s inherited, along with the chromosome that carries the abnormal gene, determines the type of muscular dystrophy someone develops.
- Muscular dystrophy develops more often in males than females due to the chromosomes that males are born with. Females have two X chromosomes; however, men have only one X chromosome. Men also have a Y chromosome. The Y chromosome does not have a copy of the dystrophin gene and doesn’t play a role in development of dystrophy.
- In females, muscular dystrophy is much less likely to occur. This is because the healthy gene on one female X chromosome can often produce enough dystrophin to compensate for the defective gene on the other abnormal X chromosome.
- On the other hand, because males only have one X chromosome they are at a greater risk for carrying a mutation and therefore not being able to produce normal, adequate dystrophin proteins.
- A female who has the irregular gene responsible for muscular dystrophy, is a carrier. Each of her offspring has roughly a 50 percent chance of inheriting the mutated gene from her. If one of her sons inherits the malfunctioning gene, then he will get the muscle condition.
Management & Conventional Treatments for Muscular Dystrophy
Genetic Testing To Determine Risk & Other Ways Of Diagnosing Muscular Dystrophy:
Females can now be tested prior to becoming pregnant or giving birth to determine if they are a carrier. A blood test can reveal if certain enzymes related to abnormal muscular development are present. It’s now also possible to test an unborn child for the disease before birth.
Doctors also use a number of other methods to determine if someone (child or adult) might have muscular dystrophy. These include:
- Physical exam to test muscle strength, flexibility, range of motion, etc.
- Electromyography (EMG). Measures electrical activity within muscles.
- Muscle biopsy. Can determine specific type of muscular dystrophy someone has.
- Electrocardiogram or EKG. Measures electrical signals from the heart and of other muscles.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Uses radio waves to determine if organs or major areas of tissue are damaged.
After making a diagnosis, treatments will depend on the type of muscular dystrophy a patient has and the symptoms that are present. Duchenne and Becker’s are not curable diseases; however, many remedies are available that can help improve quality of life and manage symptoms. The more treatments that are combined (such as diet, physical therapy, emotional therapy, alternative medicines like acupuncture for example, and sometimes medication) typically the better the outcome will be.
While there are many that are used by different patients with success, treatments for muscular dystrophy can include:
- Steroid medications to reduce muscle weakness or pains
- Albuteral (a drug used for those with asthma)
- Drugs to help heart function, such as angiotensin-converting-enzyme, beta-blockers, and diuretics
- Orthopedic devices (such as braces and wheelchairs)
- Proton pump inhibitors (for those with gastro esophageal reflux)
- Supplements to help support energy levels and muscle mass
- Therapy and support groups for dealing with emotional struggles.
- Speech pathology treatment (if the face and tongue are affected)
- Exercise, physical therapy and other modalities for helping with flexibility and coordination
- Newer treatments including stem cell therapy and gene treatments are being investigated on an ongoing basis.
5 Natural Remedies for Managing Muscular Dystrophy
1. Exercise & Physical Activities To Help Maintain Muscle Strength
Keeping the muscles strong and flexible is the most important strategy for managing muscular dystrophy symptoms. Inactivity (a sedentary lifestyle or lack of exercise such as bed rest) can make the illness worse and contribute to complications or emotional distress. Physical therapy is often very helpful to maintain flexibility and coordination. Exercise (if possible and appropriate) can maintain muscle strength. You can improve mobility by using a cane, special shoes or inserts, strollers, walking assistants, braces, electric scooters, manual or electric wheelchairs, and more if needed. (5)
Exercise, stretching and practices like yoga are also beneficial for dealing with joint pain, trouble balancing or walking, anxiety or depression, and reduced range of motion. Free videos are available online that demonstrate helpful stretches for muscular dystrophy and other physical practices. According to researchers from the MDA Neuromuscular Disease Clinic at UC Davis, even though exercise has been shown to be very helpful for those with muscular dystrophy it may not be recommended to many patients unless they specifically ask. This is because not many formal clinical trials have investigated the effects of physical activity on these muscular diseases.
Research shows that exercises including swimming or water sports, walking, stretching, weight training, cycling, using stretching bands and wheelchair sports can all be beneficial. (6)
2. Therapy & Support For Dealing With Emotional Troubles
Dealing with a chronic or very difficult illness can cause lots of emotional distress. This is true for both the patient themselves and also their caregivers. It can be very helpful for both patients and their family members or caretakers to speak with a cognitive behavioral therapist or another professional (such as a family therapist). It can also be helpful to enroll in a support group.
Practices like meditation, visualization, planning for the future and becoming educated on the disease all seem to help manage fear and sadness. (7) Support groups offer a place to speak with those who share common experiences and problems. The Muscular Dystrophy Association is an excellent source for finding support or help dealing with the stress of managing these diseases.
3. Healthy Diet For Maintaining Energy & Managing Inflammation
According to the theory behind nutrigenomics, your food choices may actually influence how your genes affect you and whether or not you develop a particular disease. Certain dietary chemicals can act on the human genome to alter gene activities or gene structure. This means they can influence the onset and progression of chronic diseases, along with how severe they may become. What you eat, along with your genotype can help prevent, mitigate or even cure diseases.
Your diet can also impact inflammation levels within your body. Factors like a highly processed/ low-nutrient diet, environmental pollution, toxin exposure, high stress levels and inactivity can all make inflammation worse. They affect immunity and the body’s ability to protect itself against cell changes, degeneration, signs of aging, digestive systems, bone mineral density loss and eventually death. (8)
While your diet alone may not be able to prevent your disease or treat it, lowering inflammation through a healing diet is important for slowing disease progress. Try to consume whole foods as much as possible (especially fresh veggies, superfoods and other plant foods that are nutrient-dense). Also, limit use of harsh chemicals in household/beauty products, avoid smoking, stay active and try to manage stress.
4. Supplements To Support Healthy Muscle Tissue
While supplements don’t always work for every patient, and studies have shown mixed results, many find them helpful. Supplements for muscular dystrophy can include:
- Amino acids: These include carnitine, coenzyme Q10 and creatine. Amino acids form proteins in the body and help sustain muscle tissue.
- Glucosamine and chondroitin for managing joint pain
- Antioxidants like vitamin E or C, which have anti-aging affects and are beneficial for the heart, joints and muscle.
- Omega 3 fish oil supplements for reducing inflammation.
- Match green tea and green tea extracts for energy support and anti-inflammatory effects.
- Probiotics for helping with digestive functions.
5. Essential Oils For Muscle & Joint Pains
Essential oils can reduce swelling, pain and other symptoms associated with degeneration of muscle tissue, cartilage and joints. Essential oils for decreasing pain naturally include peppermint, frankincense, ginger, turmeric and myrrh oils.
Others oils can also be used to naturally lower depression or anxiety, fatigue or indigestion. These oils include: lavender, chamomile, grapefruit and orange oil. There are several ways you can use essential oils for these symptoms. To help relieve pain and inflammation while improving your sleep, put a diffuser by your bed and diffuse essential oils. You can also blend these oils with a carrier oil and apply topically onto the area where you feel the pain.
Precautions When Treating Muscular Dystrophy
Keep in mind that not every patient will respond to these muscular dystrophy treatments in the same way. Monitoring symptom progress, individual reactions and warning signs of complications is important. Ultimately every patient will need to determine their own best treatment approach with their team of professional health care providers. Early intervention can also be very beneficial for reducing worsened symptoms. Talk to your doctor, or your child’s doctor, right away if you notice signs of muscular disease or degeneration. These signs include: slurred speech, numbness in the face or upper body, sudden weakness, trouble walking, loss of balance and reduced flexibility.
Final Thoughts On Muscular Dystrophy
- Muscular dystrophy is a group of diseases that cause progressive muscle weakness and other symptoms affecting nearly the whole body. Symptoms vary widely, with Duchenne’s being the more severe type of muscular dystrophy.
- Muscular dystrophy diseases are caused by abnormal genes (mutations) interfering with the production of proteins needed to form healthy muscle tissue and maintain strength or organs, muscles, bones and joints.
- There is no cure for muscular dystrophy which is a chronic disease. However, treatments like exercise, therapy, a healthy diet, supplements and medications can help manage symptoms and improve quality of life.