Muscular dystrophy is a class of genetic autoimmune disorders marked by progressive weakness, wasting, and degeneration of the skeletal muscles that control movement. There is no known cure for muscular dystrophy, and patients often turn to alternative medicine to help treat the disease.
Forms of Muscular Dystrophy
There are more than 30 diseases classified as muscular dystrophy. While some forms appear in infancy or childhood, others are not seen until middle age or later in life. Factors like age of onset, extent of muscle weakness, and rate of progression vary depending on the form of muscular dystrophy.
The most common form of muscular dystrophy is known as Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Mainly affecting boys, Duchenne muscular dystrophy is caused by the absence of dystrophin (a protein that plays a key role in maintaining muscle integrity). Duchenne muscular dystrophy typically appears between three and five years, often leaving patients unable to walk by age 12.
Other forms of muscular dystrophy include facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (marked by progressive weakness in muscles of the face, arms, legs, and around the shoulders and chest) and myotonic muscular dystrophy (marked by prolonged muscle spasms, cataracts, cardiac abnormalities, and endocrine disturbances).
Signs and Symptoms of Muscular Dystrophy
Signs and symptoms of muscular dystrophy vary depending on the form of muscular dystrophy. For instance, signs and symptoms of Duchenne muscular dystrophy may include delayed motor movements, frequent falls, weakness in the lower extremities, large calf muscles, and cognitive impairment. Myotonic muscular dystrophy, meanwhile, may cause symptoms like weakness in the facial muscles (as well as in the arms and legs and in muscles affecting speech and swallowing), baldness, respiratory problems, and cardiac abnormalities in early adulthood.
Treatment of Muscular Dystrophy
Treatment for muscular dystrophy often includes physical therapy, respiratory therapy, speech therapy, orthopedic appliances used for support, and corrective orthopedic surgery. Certain medications are also used to treat muscular dystrophy, including corticosteroids (to slow muscle degeneration), anticonvulsants (to control seizures and some muscle activity), immunosuppressants (to delay some damage to dying muscle cells), and antibiotics (to fight respiratory infections).
In some cases, muscular dystrophy patients may need assisted ventilation (to treat respiratory muscle weakness) and/or a pacemaker (to treat cardiac abnormalities).
Alternative Medicine and Muscular Dystrophy
To date, few studies have tested the use of alternative medicine in treatment of muscular dystrophy. However, there's some evidence that certain types of alternative medicine may offer some benefits to muscular dystrophy patients, although most of the studies are older. Here's a look at several key study findings:
1) Dietary Supplements and Muscular Dystrophy
Several small studies show that dietary supplements may benefit muscular dystrophy patients. For instance, a 2006 study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that supplementation with amino acids helped inhibit whole-body protein degradation (a hallmark of Duchenne muscular dystrophy). The study involved 26 boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, each of whom was treated with amino acid supplements for 10 days.
Preliminary research also indicates that creatine (an amino acid that helps provide muscle cells with energy) may help treat muscular dystrophy as well. However, in a 2005 study of 50 boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (published in Annals of Neurology), scientists found that six months of treatment with creatine supplements failed to improve muscle strength in participants.
2) Qigong and Muscular Dystrophy
Qigong may improve well-being in people with muscular dystrophy, according to a 2004 study published in Disability and Rehabilitation. The study involved 28 patients with muscular dystrophy, some of whom reported improvements in mental, physical, and psychosocial well-being (in addition to a reduction in stress levels) after practicing qigong.
3) Green Tea and Muscular Dystrophy
Green tea may be of some benefit to people with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, according to preliminary research published in the American Journal of Physiology: Cell Physiology in 2006. In tests on mice, researchers found that epigallocatechin gallate (an antioxidant found in green tea) may help protect against muscle wasting caused by muscular dystrophy. However, it's too soon to tell whether green tea may have the same effect on humans.
Should You Use Alternative Medicine to Treat Muscular Dystrophy?
If you're considering the use of any type of alternative medicine in treatment of muscular dystrophy, it's important to consult your physician (or your child's pediatrician) before beginning treatment. Self-treating muscular dystrophy with alternative medicine and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.
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