11 Dystonia: Clinical Features, Diagnosis and Treatment

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11 Dystonia: Clinical Features, Diagnosis and Treatment

Professor TT Warner

Professor in Clinical Neuroscience, UCL Institute of Neurology, Royal Free Campus, London and Consultant Neurologist Royal Free Hospital and National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery


The dystonias are an unusual group of movement disorders whose main feature is involuntary muscle contraction or spasm. The term dystonia was originally introduced by Oppenheim in 1911 to describe altering muscle tone and postural abnormalities that are seen in this condition. The concept of dystonia can be confusing as the term has been used to describe as symptom (e.g. a dystonic arm posture), a disease (primary torsion dystonia) or a syndrome. The dystonias represent a relatively common group of movement disorders that encompass a wide range of conditions from those where the only manifestation is dystonic muscle spasms, to those where dystonia is one part of a more severe neurological condition.

Definition and Classification

Dystonia is characterised by involuntary sustained muscle contractions affecting one or more sites of the body, frequently causing twisting and repetitive movements or abnormal postures.1 The movements range from slower twisting athetosis to rapid, shock-like jerky movements. They are repetitive and sometimes rhythmic and can be accompanied by tremor. Dystonic movements can be aggravated by movement (action dystonia) which can be non-specific or task-specific (e.g. writing). Over time the dystonia can occur with less specific movements and eventually can be present at rest leading to sustained abnormal postures.

Three basic approaches are used to classify dystonia: age of onset, distribution of affected body parts, and aetiology.2 The categories of age at onset and affected body distribution (Table 1) are important in describing clinical signs and have important clinical implications for prognosis and treatment.

Age at onset

Dystonia can develop at any age, although those with earlier age of onset are more likely to have a severe course affecting more of the body. Initially divided into childhood (0-13 years), adolescent (13-21 years and adult onset (>21 years), a more pragmatic division into early (<26 years) and late (>26 years) onset is now used.


This divides patients based on whether dystonia is localised to a single body region (focal), has spread to contiguous (segmental) or non-contiguous (multifocal) regions, or whether the legs are affected along with other body regions (generalised). Age of onset and body distribution are related: the earlier the age of onset, the more likely dystonia will be severe, spreading to a generalised distribution. In addition, the body region first affected is also important: onset in the legs is most frequent during childhood, and with increasing age the site of onset ascends to the arms/hands, neck and then cranial muscles. Thus childhood limb onset dystonia usually generalises, writer’s cramp occurs with mean onset in the 30’s and can spread to become segmental dystonia, cervical dystonia has mean onset in the 40’s whilst blepharospasm usually starts in the sixth decade and remains focal. The sex of the patient may also influence its onset.3


The third approach to classification is by aetiology.4 This has been revised a number of times over the years and confusingly uses both clinical and pathological features as well as referring to the presence or absence of genetic factors. This section outlines the difficulties of currently terminology but in addition refers to an alternative (descriptive) classification.

Primary torsion dystonia (PTD) is perhaps presently the least contentious term and is commonly defined as a syndrome in which dystonia is the only clinical feature (except for tremor of the arms or head and neck)t without evidence of neurodegeneration.

However, some groups have used the term “primary plus dystonia” to refer to conditions such as

dopa-responsive dystonia in which there can be additional features such as parkinsonism, whereas others keep them as a separate category traditionally known as dystonia-plus syndromes.

The same applies for the unusual paroxysmal dyskinesias in which certain forms are characterised by almost pure dystonia, whilst others display a combination of dystonia, chorea and athetosis which may or may not be be due to a single gene disorder.

A category of secondary dystonia has also been used to describe those cases where dystonia is symptomatic of an identifiable acquired cause (e.g. drugs, damage to the basal ganglia). However, by definition, this should include all “non-primary” dystonias including heredodegenerative disorders where dystonia is part of a more complex phenotype due to underlying neurodegeneration. Other groups have defined Heredodegenerative dystonia as a separate category defining aetiology.

There is not an easy fix to this historic, and sometimes geographic, debate but in table 2 we show one strategy recently put forward to encompass the various forms of dystonia syndrome.4 It would best be called a descriptive classification of dystonia, rather than aetiological.

Table 1 Classification of Dystonia

Age of onset


< 26 years


> 26 years


Focal - single body part affected


Cervical dystonia (spasmodic torticollis)




Oromandibular dystonia


Laryngeal dystonia

Hand or arm

Writer’s cramp and other limb dystonias

Segmental- two or more contiguous body parts


Cranial and/or neck


Neck and trunk


One arm and axial; both arms +/- neck +/- trunk


One leg and trunk, both legs +/- trunk


Segmental crural and any other segment


Two or more non-contiguous parts


Ipsilateral arm and leg

Table 2: A descriptive classification of dystonia





No other neurologic abnormalities, except tremor

No known cause apart from genetic factors in some cases

No evidence of neurodegeneration

Focal dystonias: cervical, blepharospasm, writer’s cramp

DYT1,DYT6, DYT13 dystonia

Dystonia plus syndromes

Prominent torsion dystonia associated with another movement disorder

No evidence of neurodegeneration.

Dopa-responsive dystonia

Rapid onset dystonia parkinsonism

Myoclonus Dystonia Syndrome

Primary paroxysmal dyskinesia/dystonia

Brief episodes of dyskinesia/dystonia with no dystonia in between. Idiopathic (mainly familial although sporadic cases also occur).

Paroxysmal kinesigenic dystonia (PKD; DYT9)

Paroxysmal exercise-induced

Paroxysmal non-kinesigenic dystonia (PNKD; DYT8)

Heredodegenerative dystonias

Dystonia occurs in the context of a genetic neurodegenerative disorder with additional clinical features

Wilson’s disease, Huntington’s disease


Symptomatic (secondary) dystonia

Arise from other disease states or brain injury

Features that suggest a secondary dystonia include abnormal birth / perinatal history, developmental delay, atypical site for age at onset (e.g. leg onset in adult, cranial onset in child), dystonia at rest at onset (rather than with action), seizures, exposure to drugs, continuous progression of symptoms, prominent bulbar involvement, hemidystonia, additional neurological symptoms (with the exception of tremor), or multisystem involvement.

CNS tumour, Congenital malformation, Stroke

CNS trauma

Perinatal cerebral injury –

e.g. Reye’s

Viral encephalitis, SSPE, prion disease, tuberculosis, lupus, antiphospholipid, syphilis, Sjogrens

Drug induced – levodopa, dopamine antagonists (e.g. neuroleptics, prochlorperazine, metoclopramide), SSRIs, buspirone, cocaine, MAO inhibitors, flecanide, calcium antagonists, ergots, anaesthetic agents

Toxins e.g. carbon monoxide, managanese, cyanide, methanol, disufiram, carbondisulfide, methanol

Metabolic - hypoparathyroidism

Paraneoplastic syndromes

Central pontine myelinosis

Dystonia as a feature of another neurological disease

Usually seen in the presence of another movement disorder, both degenerative and non-degenerative. Not usually the major clinical feature

Parkinson’s disease, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, Cortico-basal Ganglionic degeneration, Tic disorders


The true population incidence and prevalence of dystonia is unknown. The prevalence figures available are usually based on studies of diagnosed cases only and therefore underestimate the real figure. This is particularly the case with dystonia which can present in a variety of ways, and a significant number of cases of focal dystonia are undiagnosed or even misdiagnosed. An early study in the United States based on case note review estimated prevalence for PTD to be 329 per million population.6 More recent studies of diagnosed cases in Japan and Europe estimate prevalence between 101-150 per million.7,8 The most reliable estimate is from an ongoing study in the North East of England where ascertainment was more complete, and some previously undiagnosed cases were identified. This has produced a prevalence rate of 485 per million.9 The prevalence of secondary dystonia is unknown although it is estimated from case series that it may be < 20-25% the rate for PTD.

The most prevalent form of PTD is focal dystonia, of which cervical dystonia is the commonest with prevalence rates reported between 57 and 290 per million population. Rates for blepharospasm are 17 to 80 per million and 14-61 per million for writer’s cramp.

A study in South Tyrol in Austria studied a random sample of the population over the age of 50 years.10 Primary dystonia was diagnosed in 6 of the 707 individuals studied giving a prevalence of 7320 per million in this age selected population, although 95% confidence intervals were very wide at 3190 to 15, 640 due to the small sample. However, this indicates that in the aging population, dystonia is a relatively common neurological disorder.

Clinical Features

The diagnosis of dystonia is based on clinical findings. Primary dystonia has no other neurological features apart from dystonia and tremor.2,4 Features that favour a non-primary cause of dystonia are listed in Table 3. Investigations are usually performed to help exclude a secondary cause of dystonia.

Table 3 Clinical Features that suggest a Secondary/ heredodegenerative Dystonia

Abnormal birth/perinatal history

Developmental delay

Atypical site for age at onset (e.g. leg onset in adult, cranial onset in child)

Dystonia at rest (rather than with action) at onset


Exposure to drugs e.g. dopamine blockers

Continuous progression of symptoms

Prominent bulbar involvement


Additional neurological symptoms - pyramidal, cerebellar, cognitive decline, early onset of speech abnormality, parkinsonism

Other systems involved - e.g. organomegaly

Primary Dystonia

Early onset PTD (Dystonia musculorum deformans, Oppenheim’s dystonia)

The commonest cause of early onset PTD is mutation in the DYT1 gene on chromosome 9q34, which is inherited as an autosomal dominant trait with reduced penetrance (30-40%).11 It typically presents in childhood or adolescence (mean age of onset 12 years) with dystonia causing posturing of a foot, leg or arm. Dystonia is usually first apparent with specific actions (e.g writing or walking) but becomes evident with less specific actions with time and spreads to other body regions. No other neurological abnormalities are present apart from postural arm tremor. Disease severity varies considerably even within the same family and isolated writer’s cramp may be the only sign. However, around 60-70% of individuals have progression to generalised or multifocal dystonia involving at least a leg and an arm, and often axial muscles. 10% develop segmental dystonia and only 25% remain focal. The cranial muscles are involved in about 10% of individuals.12

Key investigations are to exclude treatable differential diagnoses, such as Wilson’s disease and Dopa-responsive dystonia. DYT1 dystonia is diagnosed by molecular genetic testing of the TOR1A gene, which reveals a 3 base pair deletion in all affected individuals.11

Most forms of early onset PTD are genetic in origin and Table 4 lists the genetic forms that have been identified to date. Most are autosomal dominant, some only reported in single families. Recently the gene causing DYT6 dystonia has been identified as THAP1, which encodes thanatos-associated protein and may play a role in transcriptional regulation.15 Screening in other populations have identified mutations in mainly dominant families with brachial and cervical dystonia, usually with prominent laryngeal involvement.18 The existence of autosomal recessive families (DYT2) is controversial.13

Focal PTD

These are by far the commonest forms of dystonia.6,7 Usually sporadic, they have onset in adult life and remain focal in distribution. Autosomal dominant families have been described and it is believed that a proportion of the apparently sporadic cases may represent manifestation of a dominant gene with very low penetrance (estimated at 12-15%). The individual types are discussed below.

Table 4 Genetic Forms of Primary Dystonia


Clinical features


Age of onset




Limb onset, generalises, can present as focal

50% cases early onset in non-Jews, 90% in Ashkenazi Jews

Childhood, most present by 26 years



Protein torsinA


Focal and generalised

Spanish gypsy families and single Iranian

Childhood to adult

AR, locus unknown


Laryngeal and cervical, some generalise

Single Australian family

13-37 years

AD, locus unknown


Focal or generalised, cranial, cervical or limb

Two Mennonite Amish families

Mean age of onset 19

AD, DYT6 chromosome 8p21-q22


Focal dystonia, cervical and laryngeal

Single German family

28-70 years

AD, DYT7 chromosome 18p


Cranial or cervical, some generalise

Single Italian family

Childhood to adult

AD, DYT13 chromosome 1p36


Generalized/multifocal dystonia, often starting with blepharospasm

Single Swedish family

Adult onset


Chromosome 2q14-q21

Cervical Dystonia (Spasmodic Torticollis)

Cervical Dystonia (CD) is a focal dystonia affecting cervical muscles leading to abnormal postures and movements of the head, neck and shoulders.19,20 It is the single most common form of dystonia, usually with onset in the fifth decade (mean age of onset 42 years) and affects women more than men (ratio 1.4-1.6:1). The dystonic muscle activity can be tonic, phasic or tremulous leading to symptoms of neck pain, head posturing or repetitive jerking producing tremor of the head. CD symptoms tend to worsen over the first 5 years and then stabilise. Twisting of the head around the horizontal axis (torticollis) is the most common movement, present in 80% of patients caused by overactive contralateral sternomastoid and ipsilateral splenius capitis. Laterocollis is seen in 10-20% and is due to overactivity in ipsilateral splenius, sternomastoid and levator scapulae muscles. Retrocollis (head back) and antecollis (head forward) are less frequent . Many patients, however, present with combinations of torti and laterocollis. Pain is present in 75% of patients and can cause significant disability.

Many CD patients have sensory tricks (geste antagoniste) that can alleviate symptoms. This can involve touching the back of the head, cheek or temple and leads to reduction in abnormal dystonic muscle spasm. Spontaneous remission of symptoms can occur in < 20% of patients, but unfortunately most of these will subsequently relapse. Focal CD can spread to other body parts, including the face and arm but rarely generalises.

The long term complications of CD include cervical spine degeneration leading to radicular or myopathic symptoms. CD also has a significant impact on quality of life and is associated with a higher incidence of anxiety and depression.21

Blepharospasm and other cranial dystonias22

Blepharospasm is the second commonest form of dystonia and is caused by dystonic muscle spasms of the orbicularis oculi muscles.7 As for CD, it is more common in females with ratios of female:male of between 1.8 to 2.5:1. Onset is usually in the sixth or seventh decades and is insidious, often with soreness or dryness of the eyes followed by excessive blinking, especially with bright light or reading. This can worsen over months to years, leading to sustained muscle spasms and eye closure and, when severe, can render a patient functionally blind for significant periods of time. The spasms are sometimes accompanied by perioral muscle involvement.

Oromandibular dystonia can present with either predominant jaw opening (lateral pterygoids, muscles of the floor of the mouth and infrahyoid muscles), jaw closing (masseter and medial pterygoids) or mixed type. There can also be involvement of the tongue, facial and pharyngeal muscles. Oromandibular dystonia can be present at rest, but often worsens on eating or talking with dysarthria and dysphagia. It is an extremely visible form of dystonia and can be very distressing and stigmatising to patients. Complications include temporomandibular joint impairment and muscular pain.

Directory: MDS-Files1 -> MDS-ES -> Birmingham-Course-Materials
Birmingham-Course-Materials -> 2 Aetiology and Pathogenesis of Parkinson’s Disease Dr d j nicholl
Birmingham-Course-Materials -> 9 Surgical Management of Parkinson’s Disease and Other Movement Disorders Mrs r mitchell
Birmingham-Course-Materials -> 1 Epidemiology of Parkinson’s Disease Professor y ben-Shlomo
Birmingham-Course-Materials -> 10 General Approach to Hyperkinetic Movement Disorders
Birmingham-Course-Materials -> 7 Management of Parkinson’s Disease Professor c e clarke
Birmingham-Course-Materials -> 16 Psychogenic Movement Disorders Dr a schrag and m edwards
Birmingham-Course-Materials -> 9 Surgical Management of Parkinson’s Disease and Other Movement Disorders Mrs r mitchell
Birmingham-Course-Materials -> 3 Differential Diagnosis of Parkinsonism and Tremor Dr d grosset
Birmingham-Course-Materials -> 5 Progressive Supranuclear Palsy Update Professor d burn
Birmingham-Course-Materials -> 6 Multiple System Atrophy Update

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