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Muscular dystrophy (MD)

​Muscular dystrophy (MD) is a genetic disorder that weakens a child's muscles.

There are different types of MD, some more severe than others are.

The Neurosciences team of Marshfield Clinic treats all diseases and conditions of the brain, spinal chord and the networks of sensory nerve cells called neurons.

What is Muscular Dystrophy?

Muscular dystrophy (MD) is a disorder that gradually weakens muscles. Over time, a child’s muscles break down. They are replaced with fatty tissue. MD can make movements like walking and standing up hard to do. It may even cause deformities in the joints.

MD is a genetic disorder. That means it is inherited. Children with a family history of the condition are more likely to have it.

MD is divided into 9 types. Some types don’t develop until a child becomes an adult. Others cause symptoms early in life. Children are usually diagnosed with the disorder between 3 and 6 years old.

The most common types to affect children are called Duchenne muscular dystrophy and Becker muscular dystrophy.

Symptoms of muscular dystrophy

Children with MD often have movement problems when they are young. They may start to walk later than normal. They may have trouble getting up from a sitting or lying position. Weakness in the shoulders and pelvic muscles is an early symptom.

Children may also have these other common symptoms of the disorder:

  • Clumsiness

  • Problems climbing stairs

  • Trouble jumping or hopping

  • Frequent tripping or falling

  • Walking on tip toes

  • Leg pain

  • Weakness in the face, shoulder, and arms

  • Inability to close the eyes

  • Large calves from the buildup of fat

As MD progresses, a child may have heart or lung problems. He or she may also have scoliosis. Scoliosis is a condition that causes the spine to curve. A child with scoliosis may look like he or she is leaning to one side.

Diagnosing muscular dystrophy

MD may look like other health problems. To diagnose it, your child’s doctor first does a physical exam. He or she may also ask about your child’s medical history. A genetic blood test may help diagnose the disorder along with other blood tests.

Other tests that may confirm MD include:

  • Muscle biopsy. A sample of muscle is looked at under a microscope.

  • Electromyogram. This test can find out if there is breakdown of muscle tissue.

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). This test can spot heart problems, such as an irregular heartbeat or damage to the heart muscle.

Treating muscular dystrophy

MD is a life-long condition. There is no cure. But managing it can prevent problems and deformities. The exact treatment depends on many factors. They include the child’s age, overall health, and the type of MD.

A child with MD will eventually need a wheelchair because of weak leg muscles. Keeping the child as independent as possible is the main focus of treatment. Options include:

  • Physical therapy

  • Medications

  • Psychological and nutritional counseling

Braces and splints may support and protect muscles. Special devices can help a child sit, stand, or lie down. Surgery may also be needed to fix scoliosis or other related problems.

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