Myasthenia Gravis (MG) is a chronic, autoimmune disorder caused by a breakdown in the communication between nerves and muscles in the neuromuscular junction. At the junction, nerve and muscle communicate via a neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine.
In MG, antibodies block or destroy receptors at the junction, affecting transmission. This results in fatigue and muscle weakness.
MG affects voluntary muscles in the body. Weakness may come and go, become more prominent as the affected muscle is used repeatedly, and improves with rest.
Signs may be generalised or localised:
Common signs include:
Not all signs occur at the same time or are always present. The signs usually occur slowly but may develop suddenly with generalised weakness and rapid weakening of swallowing and breathing muscles. This is termed myasthenic crisis and needs immediate medical attention.
MG affects all ages, sex and ethnic groups. It is most common in young adult women under 40 and older men over 60. It may affect newborns when a mother with MG passes the abnormal antibodies to the foetus. In adults, it is usually not hereditary. MG is not contagious.
A consult with a neurologist is needed to confirm the diagnosis. Tests include:
To detect antibodies that are abnormally high in MG
Small, safe and tolerable electric currents are delivered to nerves in quick succession to check nerve responses and function
A small needle electrode is inserted into the muscles to record differences in response time between muscle fibres
Approximately 10-15% of patients with MG have an associated thymoma, a tumour of the thymus. The thymus is a gland in the chest that is involved in the immune system. A CT scan may be needed to check for a thymoma. Most of these thymomas are not malignant.
IVIG is derived from donated blood and contains normal antibodies that temporarily counteract the abnormal antibodies in the body.
Abnormal antibodies are filtered out of the body by a machine, similar to the concept of dialysis.
IVIG or plasmapheresis is used in acute cases.
Medication such as pyridostigmine is prescribed to improve muscle weakness. Common side effects include increased salivation, diarrhoea and abdominal discomfort.
Immunosuppressant such as steroid is prescribed to suppress the immune system. Side effects include weight gain, water retention, acne, hypertension, diabetes, infections, gastric ulcers, osteoporosis and cataracts. These side effects can be minimised with diet modications and medications.
The above list is not exhaustive and you should discuss these treatment options further with your doctor.
In certain instances (e.g. thymoma), removal of the thymus gland is necessary.
With proper treatment, signs and symptoms of MG can be relieved and normal daily function achieved.
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