Myasthenia Gravis

Inflammatory and Immune System

Myasthenia gravis (MG) is a common neuromuscular disorder that may occurdue to a genetic defect in the immune system. It causes the muscles of the body, including breathing and swallowing muscles to suddenly become weak. This autoimmune disorder has just recently become known over the last twenty years. Myasthenia gravis can happen to any race, any gender, at any age.In the United States, around 14 to 20 people out of 100,000 people have the disorder or around 60,000 cases. It is believed that the disorder affects many more people, but it tends to be underdiagnosed at this time. It is more common in women than men and hits around the 20’s to 30’s for women and age 50 for men. This article explains myasthenia gravis in detail and outlines treatments, lifestyle changes, and the complications that can occur.

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Symptoms

Myasthenia gravis can affect any muscle in the body that is voluntary. These include:

  • Eye muscles
  • Facial muscles
  • Swallowing muscles

Symptoms can come on suddenly out and include:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Slurring of speech
  • Trouble breathing
  • Drooping of eyelids
  • Blurry vision
  • Trouble walking

When breathing muscles are affected, this is a medical emergency and needs immediate medical attention.

Risk Factors

The following factors may increase the chances of having a disease “flare” if you have MG:

  • Extreme heat
  • Being overtired
  • Stress
  • Illness
  • Medications (antibiotics; seizure drugs; anesthesia; and beta-blockers).

Researchers have not found any risk factors that raise the risk of actually getting MG. There may be a slightly increased chance for those with a family history, women between 20 and 40 years of age, and men over 60 years of age.

Diagnosis

Any signs of weakness should be evaluated by a doctor as soon as possible. Weakness can be a sign of many different conditions. It may take a while to diagnose myasthenia gravis after all other conditions have been ruled out.

The doctor will first take a look at your medical history, medications, family history, and do a medical exam. Your neurological status will be evaluated by looking at your hand and leg strength. They will also check your eye movements and sensations on your skin. If the doctor suspects MG you will need to have a few more tests to confirm.

Anti-MuSKantibodies. This blood test checks for the antibodies that block acetylcholine. These antibodies are most often elevated in around 30 to 40 percent of people with MG. Some people do not have elevated antibody levelsbut still have MG.

Edrophonium test. If MG cannot be confirmed with antibody testing, the doctor may order a test where you are given an IV injection of edrophonium. This will temporarily relieve any muscle weakness in people who have MG. It increases the levels of acetylcholine that are available at the neuromuscular junctions in the body.

Nerve conduction study. The doctor will hook up electrodes that stimulate the muscles and check for weakness. With MG, the electrical stimulation does not seem to affect the muscles.

CT and MRI scans. The doctor may order either a CT or MRI scan to check the thymus gland for tumors.

Pulmonary function studies. If your respiratory muscles are weak, the doctor may check your pulmonary function. This will help determine if you are at risk for respiratory failure from MG.

Treatments

The treatments for myasthenia gravis may vary according to your symptoms. There is no cure, but treatments can lessen the severity of the condition and relieve muscle weakness. These include:

Steroids. Corticosteroids can suppress the immune system from producing antibodies that attack the acetylcholine receptors. This can help with active flares of the disease, but doctors usually only use them short-term due to side-effects like; bone loss, weight gain, risk of infection, and increased blood sugar.

Cholinesterase inhibitors. These medications can increase muscular response to nerve impulses. They can help the muscles contract and improve strength. Side-effects are; nausea, salivation, sweating, and stomach upset.

Immunosuppressant medications. These may help lower the immune system response when it attacks the neuromuscular junctions. Doctors use drugs much like chemotherapy drugs that can have side-effects like; vomiting, upset stomach, kidney, and liver issues.

Intravenous immunoglobulin. Intravenous immunoglobulin replaces antibodies that cause damage with healthy antibodies. It tends to “re-boot” the immune system but takes around a week to take effect and the effects last from 3 to 6 weeks. Side-effects include headaches, chills, dizziness, and retention of fluids.

Plasmapheresis. Plasmapheresis filters the blood to remove antibodies and places clean blood without antibodies back into the body. The effects are only temporary, up to a few weeks and there are side effects including; muscle cramping, bleeding, blood pressure drops, and heart rhythm disturbances. There can also be allergic reactions to the dialysis fluid.

Surgery. If the doctor finds a tumor on the thymus, you may need to have surgery to have the thymus gland removed. Some people benefit from having the thymus gland removed even if there isn’t a tumor.

Alternative Treatments and Home Remedies

Talk with your doctor before you try any complementary or alternative treatments. Remember that many herbal and nutritional supplements can interact with medications you are currently taking. People with myasthenia gravis often seek natural sources of treatment to help them relieve their symptoms and stress related to the autoimmune disorder. These treatments include:

Respiratory muscle training. This training helps you to build strength in the muscles that help you breathe. Breathing training improves endurance and helps to relieve breathlessness.

Nutritional therapy. Weight gain, bone loss, low levels of potassium, and fluid retention are all things that people with myasthenia gravis may struggle with. You can improve these symptoms by consulting a nutritional therapist to help you formulate a diet plan.

Support group therapy. Living with myasthenia gravis can be extremely difficult and at times may make you feel isolated. Reach out to a friend or join a support group to help lighten the load and give you an outlet to share your struggles and triumphs.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). This holistic medical system is used as a primary form of treatment in China and has been used for thousands of years. Chinese herbal medicine is a vital component of TCM and involves a materia medica of thousands of herbs used to treat several diseases and disorders. Studies have shown that astragalus (Astragulusmembranaceus) and ginseng (Radix ginseng) are effective in treating symptoms of myasthenia gravis.

Lifestyle Changes

People with myasthenia gravis may find relief from symptoms with a few simple lifestyle changes. These include:

Dietary modifications. Chewing and swallowing may be tricky during flares. Take your time to chew and eat your food and make food easier to eat by cutting it into small pieces. Eat more frequent and smaller meals throughout the day. Change to a soft food diet and avoid raw and crunchy foods.

Rest. If your muscles are weak, rest. Try not to overdo tasks or do too much. Break up tasks into small pieces and give yourself frequent rest periods. Ask for help with heavy lifting and tasks that take a lot of energy.

Think safety. Use rails in the shower and stairs to hold onto. Keep cords and loose rugs out of your footpath so you don’t trip over them. Keep things picked up inside and out to prevent falls.

Try an eye patch. If you have double or blurry vision, try using an eye patch to reduce this issue. Cover one eye for a little while to let it rest and then switch the patch to the other eye. If your eyes become overstrained, give them rest.

References

Brind’Amour, K. (2018, January 01). Myasthenia gravis and symptom management. Retrieved from Dr. Axe: https://draxe.com/health/myasthenia-gravis/

Howard, J. M. (2015, June). Myasthenia gravis – asummary. Retrieved from Myasthenia Gravis Foundation: https://www.myasthenia.org/HealthProfessionals/ClinicalOverviewofMG.aspx

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2013, April 23). Causes of Myasthenia Gravis. Retrieved from Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/myasthenia-gravis/basics/causes/con-20027124

Muscular Dystrophy Association. (2019). What is myasthenia gravis: A guide for patients and families. Retrieved from Muscular Dystrophy Association: https://www.mda.org/sites/default/files/2019/11/MDA_MG_Fact_Sheet_Nov_2019.pdf

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2010, September 10). Myasthenia gravis fact sheet. Retrieved from National Institute of Health: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/myasthenia_gravis/detail_myasthenia_gravis.htm#289513153

Thanvi, B. R.(2004). Update on myasthenia gravis. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 80, 690-700. Retrieved from Postgraduate Medical Journal: https://pmj.bmj.com/content/postgradmedj/80/950/690.full.pdf

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