What is Dystonia?

Dystonia is a movement disorder marked by involuntary muscle contractions, neck and limb twisting, crooked postures, and repetitive motions. It can affect different parts of the body and is associated with a number of underlying medical conditions. The contractions range in intensity from relatively mild to quite severe. Serious cases can be painful, physically disabling, and socially isolating. Dystonia can strike at any age but is seen most frequently in middle-aged populations (between 40 and 60 years old). Women are more subject to dystonia than men.

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons has estimated that a quarter-of-a-million Americans deal with some form of dystonia. There is no cure for this condition but treatments exist to reduce or manage symptoms. If you or a loved one is having issues with involuntary muscle contractions, see your Baptist Health medical provider.

What Are the Different Types of Dystonia?

Dystonia can take many forms. One means of categorizing dystonia is by the nature of its cause or causes:

  • Primary dystonia: Primary dystonia develops without an obvious link to an underlying medical condition. In other words, it has a cause but the cause is unknown. This form is also called idiopathic dystonia.
  • Secondary dystonia: Secondary dystonia develops in conjunction with an underlying medical cause, such as an inherited condition, a traumatic injury, or a neurological disorder.

Another means of categorization is by the part or parts of the body in which the muscle contractions occur:

  • Focal dystonia: Focal dystonia occurs in only one part of the body (e.g., the neck).
  • Segmental dystonia: Segmental dystonia involves two or more adjacent areas of the body.
  • Multifocal dystonia: Multifocal dystonia is similar to segmental, but the affected areas are not adjacent.
  • Hemidystonia: Hemidystonia occurs in half the body.
  • Generalized dystonia: Generalized dystonia affects the entire body (including the legs and other less common areas).

What Are the Symptoms of Dystonia?

Dystonia symptoms vary according to the part or parts of the body that are being affected. The following are some of the more common forms of dystonia, as defined by their symptoms:


Blepharospasm is dystonia of the eye muscles. It is marked by extreme sensitivity to light, excessive blinking, and involuntary shutting of the eyelids, sometimes for minutes at a time.

Cervical Dystonia

Cervical dystonia targets neck muscles and head posture. Rather than upright, the head is forced into a forward, backward, sideways, or twisted position.

Cranial Dystonia

Cranial dystonia affects the neck muscles, too, but extends to other muscles in the face and head.

Dopa-responsive Dystonia

The legs are primarily affected by dopa-responsive dystonia. Onset is relatively early, at five to 30 years old.

Laryngeal Dystonia

The larynx is your voice box, and critical to speech. Laryngeal spasms make normal talking difficult. This form is also called spasmodic dystonia.

Oromandibular Dystonia

Oromandibular is a dystonia of the mouth and jaw muscles. The mouth is pulled up and away from its usual position. This form of dystonia is sometimes accompanied by dysphagia – problems swallowing.

Paroxysmal Dystonia

Paroxysmal dystonia is an occasional form of this condition, often triggered by stress, fatigue, or some form of stimulation, such as coffee consumption. It gives the appearance of an epileptic seizure, but without a loss of consciousness.  

Tardive Dystonia

Tardive dystonia is caused by a drug reaction. It can generate tremors and involuntary muscle movement in almost every part of your body, including the head, pelvis, arms, hands, legs, and feet.

Writer’s Cramp

Writer’s cramp is a task-specific version of dystonia that impacts arms and wrists. It is not limited to writers; musicians, athletes, programmers, and other persons who rely on frequent hand and wrist movement experience it as well.

What Causes Dystonia?

Medical science has yet to determine the precise cause of dystonia, though research is focusing on a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which is in charge of the body’s many involuntary movements. That said, dystonia often manifests as a symptom of an underlying medical condition. Included are:

  • Brain tumors and other cancer-related side effects
  • Carbon monoxide or heavy metal poisoning
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Drug reactions
  • HIV, tubercular, and other infections
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Stroke
  • Traumatic injury
  • Wilson’s disease

Inheritance also plays a role in dystonia. Several genes have been identified as contributing to certain forms of this condition.

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