Muscular Dystrophy

Muscular dystrophy (MD) is a group of inherited, progressive muscle disorders. All forms cause progressive weakness and degeneration of the muscles that control movement. Some also affect the heart or other organs.

Common Muscular Dystrophy Symptoms

Each type of muscular dystrophy has its own unique symptoms. For example, the muscles that are affected may differ depending on the type.

Initial symptoms:

  • Progressive weakening of muscles
  • Enlargement of muscles as they weaken
  • Muscle cramping
  • Clumsiness
  • Frequent falling and difficulty getting up

Later symptoms:

  • Muscle contraction and stiffening
  • Muscle deterioration

Duchenne and Becker Dystrophies

Duchenne dystrophy is the most common form of MD. With the milder Becker dystrophy, it shares specific symptoms, including:

  • Initial symptoms:
    • Usually muscles closest to the trunk become weak first. Then, muscles further away weaken as the disease advances.
    • Enlargement of calf muscles as they weaken
  • Later symptoms
    • Abnormally curved spine
    • Respiratory infections
    • Severe muscle deterioration, usually leading to use of a wheelchair
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Muscle contraction and stiffening — often severe
    • Distortion of the body
    • Reduced intelligence

Myotonic Muscular Dystrophy

Myotonic muscular dystrophy can begin in late adulthood. Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty letting go after a handshake
  • Reduced intelligence
  • Excessive sleeping

Symptoms usually become worse over time. In many forms, life expectancy is shortened.

Other Forms of Muscular Dystrophy

  • Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy affects the muscles of the face, shoulder blades and upper arms.
  • Congenital muscular dystrophy results in overall muscle weakness.
  • Distal muscular dystrophy affects the distal muscles of the lower arms, hands, lower legs and feet.
  • Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy affects the muscles of the shoulders, upper-arms and calf muscles.
  • Limb-girdle muscular dystrophy affects the muscles around the hips and shoulders.
  • Oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy affects swallowing and the ability to keep the eyes open.

To make a diagnosis, blood tests and muscle biopsies can identify evidence of muscle damage; nerve and muscle tests could include:

  • Electromyogram (EMG)
  • Nerve conduction study (NCS)

Symptom Management

While there is no cure for muscular dystrophy, we can help you manage your symptoms.

Physical Therapy and Exercise

Physical therapy and exercise can help prevent the muscles from permanently contracting and stiffening.


In earlier stages, wearing braces may improve your ability to move around. A back brace may slow curvature of the spine.


Medicines may include:

  • Corticosteroids to relieve muscle weakness in Duchenne muscular dystrophy
  • Creatine supplements may reduce fatigue and increase strength
  • Drugs for heart problems if muscular dystrophy affects the heart


In severe cases, surgery may be needed to release muscles that are painfully tight. If there are heart problems, you may need a pacemaker.

Genetic Counseling

Get genetic counseling if you are concerned about having a child with muscular dystrophy, especially if you:

  • Have muscular dystrophy or a family history of the disease
  • May be a carrier of the gene for muscular dystrophy
  • Have a partner with a family history of the disease


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.