Frequently Asked Questions: Causes

Can childhood illnesses such as measles cause dystonia?

Rarely is dystonia linked to the occurrence of a childhood illness. Dystonia can arise from birth injury, which can be associated with rare childhood metabolic disorders or following a brain infection such as encephalitis. Subacute sclerosing panencephalities is a rare complication of measles that has been associated with dystonia. In most instances, however, uncomplicated measles does not cause dystonia. The disorders mentioned above usually have other associated features, including cognitive problems, seizures, or other neurologic abnormalities, and do not typically cause only dystonic symptoms.

Sometimes trauma to the head or neck area may cause slippage of the bony spine, particularly in a child. This is called atlantoaxial dislocation and may result in symptoms that resemble spasmodic torticollis but is, in fact, not dystonia but an orthopedic problem. This condition may be called infant torticollis.

If a person is diagnosed with primary dystonia but there is no family history, does that mean it's not genetic?

The absence of a clear family history of dystonia does not rule out a hereditary or genetic basis for childhood-onset or adult-onset dystonias that are diagnosed as primary (meaning that they cannot be attributed to trauma, medications, or another disease or condition) this applies to generalized and focal primary dystonias. Most primary forms of dystonia, including those for which no genes have yet been discovered, are believed to be caused by a combination of genes and other unknown factors. Those genes and factors have simply not been identified at this time.

It's possible that breakthroughs in genetics may soon allow the diagnosis of hereditary dystonia even in families without a clear family history.

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