Myasthenia gravis: What you should know

There’s a good chance that you’re aware of ALS thanks to widespread participation in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. However, there’s a similar, more common autoimmune disease affecting the lives of approximately 20 out of every 100,000 people in the United States.

Myasthenia gravis (MG) is a chronic neuromuscular disorder that affects the skeletal muscles. Dr. Milvia Pleitez, a neurologist at Baylor College of Medicine, tells us more about the disease.

Q: What is MG?
A: MG causes intermittent weakness in the voluntary muscles of the body. The weakness can be so severe that patients are not able to move, speak, swallow or breathe on their own. This is due to a failure of communication between the muscle and the nerve.

Fluctuating muscle weakness is a key symptom of the disease, which often leads to patients feeling well one day then feeling weak the next day.

June is Myasthenia Gravis Awareness Month.

Q: What are common risk factors and causes?
A: While it affects all ages, genders and ethnicities, younger women and older men are at a slightly higher risk. Most individuals affected by this condition are in the prime of their life.

The most common type of MG is caused by an autoimmune process, meaning your own immune system tries to attack or damage your neuromuscular junction. There are various proteins or antibodies the immune system secretes that may cause the disease. There are also genetic causes for MG.

Q: What are the symptoms?
A: Droopy eyelids, double vision, swallowing difficulties with choking episodes and shortness of breath. Other symptoms include fatigue, slurred speech, arm weakness, leg weakness, neck weakness and fatigue upon chewing food. Weight loss may occur and some patients may need artificial ventilation as they cannot breathe on their own.

Q: Is there a cure for MG? What are the available treatment options?
A: There is no cure for MG but many treatments that help do exist. Treatment options include oral medications and infusions. Procedures such as plasmapheresis and removing a gland known as the thymus gland in the chest are also effective treatments.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share about MG?
A: While there have been several advancements made in treating patients, most of these treatments have serious side effects, some of which are long term. Thus patients often end up developing other medical problems as a result of these therapies.

Often these other medical problems contribute to a decline in quality of life, which can be devastating especially for  young adults. Patients with MG are emotionally resilient but can be benefited by the identification of better therapies and biomarkers geared towards improving disease response.

Dr. Pleitez is an assistant professor of neurology at Baylor. Learn more about MG and see information about the Neuromuscular Disease Center.

-By Alexandria Bland, communications coordinator with the Departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery at Baylor

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