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How does dystonia affect the body?

Although the exact cause of dystonia is unknown, it seems that the disorder results from hyperactivity in certain areas of the brain. Nerves trigger the muscles to contract uncontrollably, which forces the body into unnatural and uncomfortable positions. Dystonia can affect various areas of the body, including the eyes, hands, neck, and vocal cords. At least initially, the symptoms are only brought on during certain activities like walking or playing a musical instrument, but they can get worse over time.

Dystonia affects muscles that can be controlled voluntarily (mostly the skeletal muscles); it doesn't affect smooth muscles, such as those in the heart.

However, dystonia can affect breathing in several ways. Severe neck dystonia can cause difficulty breathing when the upper airway is affected. Dystonia involving the vocal cords can potentially cause shortness of breath when the vocal cords close tight, but in general the tightness is present primarily when speaking. The act of breathing involves muscles between the ribs and a large muscle called the diaphragm. Dystonia can cause stiffness in the muscles between the ribs and can cause a sensation or shortness of breath. Occasionally, the diaphragm can also be affected. Finally, when a person with dystonia has involvement of the spine, twisting of the torso can limit how much the lungs can expand when breathing, and this can potentially cause shortness of breath.

The bladder is made up of smooth muscle, and therefore not affected by dystonia. However, the muscles around the opening of the bladder (the external sphincter) can very rarely become involved, resulting in difficulty of passing urine. This seems to occur most often dystonia that is a symptom of another neurological disease such as Parkinson's disease.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.