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Myasthenia Gravis


What is myasthenia gravis?

Myasthenia gravis, sometimes called MG, is a chronic (long-lasting) disease that causes weakness in your voluntary muscles. The voluntary muscles are the ones that you can control. They include the muscles you use for:

  • Eye and eyelid movement
  • Facial expressions
  • Chewing
  • Talking
  • Swallowing
  • Breathing
  • Moving your arms and legs

You can also have weakness in other muscles. This weakness gets worse with activity, and better with rest.

Myasthenia gravis is a type of autoimmune disease. In autoimmune diseases, your immune system attacks the healthy cells of your organs and tissues by mistake.

What causes myasthenia gravis?

Myasthenia gravis is caused by an error in how nerve signals are sent to muscles. These signals get blocked at the nerve-muscle junction. This junction is the place where the nerve endings connect with the muscles they control.

Normally, this is how the signals work:

  • The signals travel down a nerve that controls movement in the muscle
  • The nerve endings release a substance called acetylcholine
  • Acetylcholine binds to the muscle tissue at the nerve-muscle junction
  • This causes the muscle to contract (move)

But in someone with myasthenia gravis, the body's own immune system makes antibodies that block the binding of acetylcholine to the muscle. This makes the muscles weaker.

The thymus gland, which is part of your immune system, may play a role in myasthenia gravis. Normally, your thymus gland is active and growing when you are a child. It makes white blood cells to fight infections. At puberty, it starts getting smaller and is replaced by fat. It is usually small by the time you are an adult. But in many adults with myasthenia gravis, the thymus gland stays large. And some people with myasthenia gravis can get thymomas, which are tumors of the thymus. The are usually benign (not cancer), but they can sometimes become cancerous.

Who is more likely to develop myasthenia gravis?

Although myasthenia gravis can affect people of any age, it is most common in young adult women (under age 40) and older men (over age 60). It is usually not inherited (passed down in families).

Myasthenia gravis normally does not affect infants. But it's possible for pregnant people who have myasthenia gravis to pass the antibodies to their unborn babies. The baby can then be born with neonatal myasthenia. This condition is usually temporary, and the symptoms typically go away within two to three months after birth.

What are the symptoms of myasthenia gravis?

The symptoms of myasthenia gravis will depend on which muscles are affected. The symptoms often include:

Different people have different levels of muscle weakness. And the weakness can vary from day to day. Some days it might be mild, and other days it might be worse. Physical activity often makes the muscle weakness worse.

Some people with myasthenia gravis can get severe weakness that affects the muscles that control breathing. This is called a myasthenic crisis, and it is a life-threatening emergency.

How is myasthenia gravis diagnosed?

There are many other conditions that can cause muscle weakness, so myasthenia gravis can be hard to diagnose. To find out if you have myasthenia gravis, your health care provider:

What are the treatments for myasthenia gravis?

There is no cure for myasthenia gravis, but treatments that can improve muscle weakness and help with symptoms. They include:

  • Anticholinesterase medicines, which can improve nerve-to-muscle messages and make muscles stronger.
  • Immunosuppressive medicines, which are medicines that decrease your body's immune system responses. They can lower your body's production of abnormal antibodies.
  • Monoclonal antibodies, which can also help decrease your body's immune system responses.
  • Plasmapheresis (plasma exchange) and intravenous immunoglobulin, which are procedures to remove abnormal antibodies from your blood. They are usually used in severe cases. They can help with symptoms for a few weeks or months.
  • Thymectomy, surgery to remove the thymus gland. It can reduce the symptoms of myasthenia gravis, possibly by rebalancing the immune system.

Lifestyle changes may be helpful for some people. The changes could include regular gentle exercise, getting enough rest, and eating healthy foods.

Some people with myasthenia gravis go into remission. This means that they do not have symptoms. The remission is usually temporary, but sometimes it can be permanent.

NIH: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

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The information on this site should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. Contact a health care provider if you have questions about your health.