Dystonia is a painful neurological condition that causes your muscles to contract into abnormal postures or to twist or shake. Dystonia usually starts in a single muscle or muscle group, but it can spread. The disorder is caused by abnormal functioning in parts of your brain.

Dystonia is characterized as focal, segmental, or generalized:

  • Focal dystonia is contained to a single muscle group
  • Segmental dystonia affects two or more contiguous body regions
  • Generalized dystonia affects both of your legs and at least one other body part

Focal dystonia can affect the muscles around your neck (cervical dystonia or torticollis), your eyes (blepharospasm), your vocal cords (spasmodic dysphonia), or your jaw, tongue, or mouth (oromandibular dystonia). Writer’s cramp, affecting your arm muscles, is a form of dystonia. If you develop dystonia before age 20, the disease is more likely to spread from one group of muscles to another or to your entire body.

Causes of Dystonia

The exact cause of dystonia is often unknown. In some cases, dystonia is the result of a medication taken at roughly the time of diagnosis or sometime in the past. A genetic abnormality or an illness such as Parkinson’s disease, Wilson’s disease, or another neurological disorder is sometimes responsible.

Scientists are conducting research to determine the root causes of dystonia. For instance, people with dystonia generally have abnormal activity in certain brain regions that control muscles and movements. It is unknown, however, whether this abnormal activity is a consequence of dystonia or is related to its cause.

Research is also taking place regarding the nerve cells involved in movement. One set of nerve cells increases the activity of muscles involved in a certain movement, while another set decreases the activity of those muscles opposing the movement. Evidence suggests that in dystonia, a set of nerve cells that is supposed to decrease the activity of the muscles opposing the movement is functioning improperly. This malfunction may cause the excessive muscle contractions associated with dystonia.


If you have a mild form of dystonia not affecting your well-being, you might not need treatment at all. Otherwise, treating the underlying cause of your dystonia, if determined, is your primary goal.

Treatments include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Anticholinergic medications
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Medications affecting dopamine
  • Botulinum toxins

For severe cases of dystonia, brain surgery usually brings relief.

Contact Us

Robert and John M. Bendheim Parkinson and Movement Disorders Center
Tel: 212-241-5607
Fax: 212-241-3656

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New York, NY 10029-6574

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