What Is Multiple System Atrophy?

Multiple system atrophy (MSA) is a nervous system disease that causes problems with how your body works, such as the way you keep your balance and move. There's no cure, but medicine and changes in your everyday habits can help you manage the symptoms.

Symptoms

If you get MSA, you usually start to see symptoms when you're in your 50s or 60s.

The first signs you may notice are:

  • Slow movement, stiffness, and tremors (uncontrolled, repetitive movements)
  • Clumsiness
  • Speech problems, like a shaky voice
  • Fainting or dizziness when you stand up
  • Bladder problems, like the sudden need to pee or trouble emptying your bladder

Types of Multiple System Atrophy

There are two types of MSA. Your doctor will tell you which one you have based on your major symptoms.

Parkinsonian or MSA-P. The main symptoms look like Parkinson's disease. You may have problems like stiff muscles, slow movement, tremors, and trouble with balance. This is the most common type of MSA.

Cerebellar or MSA-C. The main symptoms you may get are loss of coordination and trouble keeping your balance. You may also have problems with your speech, trouble swallowing, and eye issues like blurred vision or finding it hard to focus.

When you have MSA, you may also have problems with some of the basic actions your body does. For instance, you may find you make less sweat, tears, and saliva. You could lose bladder and bowel control or become constipated.

Some other problems you might notice are:

  • Can't handle heat well
  • Erectile dysfunction (ED)
  • Sleep apnea
  • Sleep disturbances, including acting out vivid dreams
  • Noisy breathing
  • Find it hard to control your emotions

Diagnosis

Your doctor may find it hard at first to diagnose you with MSA. Many of the early symptoms look like Parkinson's disease, which is more common. You may need to see a neurologist, a doctor who specializes in movement disorders.

To see if you have MSA, your doctor will examine you, talk about your symptoms, and look for changes in your brain and nervous system. To figure out if you have MSA or Parkinson's disease, you may need to get "autonomic testing," a type of nervous system test.

You may need to get an MRI of your brain. Your doctor might also check your blood pressure while you're sitting and standing. They may also test how your body sweats. And you might need a test called an electrocardiogram that looks at the electrical signals in your heart.

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Causes

When you have MSA, a specific protein builds up in the cells that support the nerve cells in your brain. This causes parts of the brain and spinal cord to break down. Experts don't know why this happens.

Treatment

The Parkinson's drug levodopa can help manage shaking, stiffness, and slow movement. Stretching and exercise can keep your muscles strong and flexible. Physical, occupational, and speech therapists can help with walking and talking.

To control your blood pressure, you doctor might suggest that you eat more salt, drink more water, or wear compression garments. You also might get prescriptions for drugs like droxidopa, fludrocortisone, or midodrine. You could need a pacemaker to regulate your heart and increase your blood pressure.
To help prevent lightheadedness or passing out when you change your body position, your doctor might suggest you avoid standing up too quickly. For instance, when you get out of bed, you should sit at the edge of the bed first and be ready to sit back down if you feel lightheaded.

For bladder control, drugs including oxybutynin, mirabegron, tamsulosin, and tolterodine might help. You might use a catheter as well, which you can learn to use on your own. Catheters or medication can also help if you're unable to empty your bladder.

Softer foods can help with swallowing. You might need a breathing or feeding tube for more serious problems.

For constipation, your doctor might recommend that you eat more fiber, take stool softeners, or try enemas.

Medications can help with erectile dysfunction if that becomes a problem for you.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky on October 24, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: "Multiple System Atrophy (MSA)."

Merck Manual: "Multiple System Atrophy (MSA)."

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Multiple System Atrophy Fact Sheet."

Cleveland Clinic: "Multiple System Atrophy."

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