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Understanding Muscular Dystrophy -- Symptoms

Dystrophy is any condition in which a part of the body weakens or wastes away. In muscular dystrophy, the weakness is in the muscles. An inherited genetic mistake prevents the body from making a protein that helps build muscles and keep them strong.

Children who are born with muscular dystrophy usually develop normally for the first few years of life. They may suddenly show signs of clumsiness. These signs include:

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  • trouble walking
  • difficulty raising the front of their foot (called foot drop)
  • falling

Over time, children with muscular dystrophy can become weaker and weaker, losing the ability to sit, walk, and lift objects. Because the disease can also affect muscles in the heart and lungs, serious heart and breathing problems can occur.

There are several different types of muscular dystrophy. Muscle weakness is a hallmark of each type. But the symptoms can vary and start at different ages.

Some muscular dystrophies are mild. Others are severe and cause greater muscle loss.

Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy

Duchenne muscular dystrophy is the most common and severe form of the disease. It usually starts when a child is between ages 2 and 5.

Symptoms of Duchenne muscular dystrophy include:

  • Muscle weakness that begins in the hips, pelvis, and legs
  • Difficulty standing
  • Trouble learning to sit independently and walk
  • Unsteady, waddling gait
  • Walking on the toes or balls of the feet
  • Clumsiness, falling often
  • Trouble climbing stairs
  • Difficulty rising from a lying or sitting position
  • Larger-than-normal calves that are sometimes painful
  • Trouble breathing
  • Learning disabilities or behavioral problems
  • Curvature of the spine (scoliosis). This can cause one hip to rise higher than the other.
  • Breathing problems that may eventually require the use of a ventilator

By age 12, most children with Duchenne muscular dystrophy must use a wheelchair to get around. The disease also damages the heart and the muscles needed to breathe, which can be life threatening.

Becker Muscular Dystrophy

The symptoms of Becker muscular dystrophy are similar to those of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. But Becker muscular dystrophy starts later -- around the teen years. It also develops much more slowly.

The first signs of Becker muscular dystrophy may be trouble walking fast, running, and climbing stairs. Other symptoms may include:

  • Muscle weakness that starts in the pelvis, shoulders, hips, and thighs
  • Difficulty learning how to walk
  • Waddling gait
  • Walking on the toes
  • Larger-than-normal calves
  • Muscle cramps when exercising
  • Trouble lifting objects above waist height because of shoulder and arm weakness
  • Heart and breathing problems (later in life)

Often children with Becker muscular dystrophy can walk. As they get older they may need to use a cane or wheelchair to get around.

Myotonic Dystrophy

The symptoms of myotonic dystrophy may be obvious from birth or they can develop later -- during the teenage or adult years.

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