Muscular dystrophy (MD) is a disorder that slowly weakens muscles. Over time, a child’s muscles break down. They are replaced with fatty tissue. MD can make movements such as walking and standing up hard to do. It may even cause deformities in the joints.
MD is a genetic disorder. That means it is inherited. Children with a family history of the condition are more likely to have it.
MD is divided into 9 types. Some types don’t develop until a child becomes an adult. Others cause symptoms early in life. Children are often diagnosed with the disorder between 3 and 6 years old. The most common types to affect children are called Duchenne muscular dystrophy and Becker muscular dystrophy.
Symptoms of muscular dystrophy
Children with MD often have movement problems when they are young. They may start to walk later than normal. They may have trouble getting up from a sitting or lying position. Weakness in the shoulders and pelvic muscles is an early symptom.
Children may also have these other common symptoms of the disorder:
Problems climbing stairs
Trouble jumping or hopping
Frequent tripping or falling
Walking on their toes
Weakness in the face, shoulder, and arms
Inability to open or close the eyes
Large calves from fat buildup
As MD progresses, a child may have heart or lung problems. He or she may also have scoliosis. Scoliosis is a condition that causes the spine to curve. A child with scoliosis may look like they are leaning to one side.
Diagnosing muscular dystrophy
MD may look like other health problems. To diagnose it, your child’s doctor first does a physical exam. He or she may also ask about your child’s health history. A genetic blood test may help diagnose the disorder along with other blood tests.
Other tests that may confirm MD include:
Muscle biopsy. A sample of muscle is looked at under a microscope.
Electromyogram. This test can find out if there is breakdown of muscle tissue.
Electrocardiogram (ECG). This test can spot heart problems, such as an irregular heartbeat or damage to the heart muscle.
Blood tests. These can look for signs of muscle breakdown.
Treating muscular dystrophy
MD is a life-long condition. There is no cure. But managing it can prevent problems and deformities. The exact treatment depends on many things. They include the child’s age, overall health, and the type of MD.
Over time, a child with MD will need a wheelchair because of weak leg muscles. Keeping the child as independent as possible is the main focus of treatment. Options include:
Braces and splints may support and protect muscles. Special devices can help a child sit, stand, or lie down. Surgery may also be needed to fix scoliosis or other related problems.
If breathing is affected, there are devices that can help. These can be noninvasive, such as a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. Or they can be more invasive, such as a mechanical ventilator.
If swallowing is affected, your child may need a change in diet or a feeding tube.