Duchenne [doo-SHEN] muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a rare genetic condition that weakens your child’s muscles. It is the most common muscular dystrophy, a kind of inherited muscle disease. DMD causes weakness and muscle loss that spreads throughout your child’s body.
DMD appears in young boys, usually between ages 2 and 5. It causes muscle loss that gets worse over time. Most boys with DMD need a wheelchair by the time they are teenagers. DMD damages the muscles needed for movement. DMD also can weaken the heart muscle and make the heart enlarge (dilated cardiomyopathy). DMD has no cure, but some people with DMD can live into their 40s and 50s.
DMD is caused by changes (mutations) in the gene that helps make dystrophin. Dystrophin is an important protein in muscle cells. It helps keep the muscle fibers stable and protects them.
Muscles are made up of bundles of long muscle fibers (muscle cells). These fibers pull together (contract) when nerve signals from the brain travel to the specific spot (junction) where the nerve activates the muscle. Dystrophin is part of a complex set of proteins that normally protect your child’s muscle fibers as they contract and relax.
In DMD, the gene changes cause your child's body to make very little or no dystrophin. Without enough dystrophin, the muscle cells become leaky and die. This causes the muscles to weaken. If the gene can still make some dystrophin, the condition has milder symptoms. This is called Becker muscular dystrophy. People with DMD generally don’t have any dystrophin at all.
DMD generally affects boys because the dystrophin gene is on the X chromosome. Chromosomes are the parts of your cells that contain your genes. Boys only have one X chromosome. Girls have two X chromosomes, one from each parent. Boys get one X chromosome from their mother and one Y chromosome from their father. The condition only rarely affects girls.
Because a boy only has one copy of the dystrophin gene, a DMD mutation means that he will not have enough dystrophin to keep his muscles working well. For this reason, DMD is called an X-linked condition. When a girl inherits a DMD mutation on one of her X chromosomes, she usually gets enough dystrophin from a healthy gene on the other X chromosome. But some girls don’t have quite enough dystrophin. This causes mild to moderate DMD symptoms and disease of the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy).
Women who have a DMD mutation are DMD carriers. They have a 1 in 2 chance of passing the gene on to each child. If a boy gets the mutation, he gets the disease. A girl who gets the mutation will be a carrier. A mutation can also sometimes happen without being passed on from a parent. This is called a de novo mutation.
Muscle weakness begins in young children. It affects the hips and thighs before spreading to the arms and the rest of the body. First signs and symptoms of DMD in preschoolers may include:
As the disease gets worse, DMD can lead to:
Your child’s healthcare provider will take a full health history, and ask about current symptoms and past health conditions. He or she will ask about related conditions in the family. He or she usually does a physical exam and lab tests. Your child may need tests that include:
Your child may first see his or her main healthcare provider and then be diagnosed by a neurologist. Some neurologists have special training to treat nerve and muscle diseases such as DMD. Your child may also need care from other providers such as cardiologists, pulmonologists, and physical therapists.
DMD has no cure, but many supportive treatments can help manage the condition. Some possible treatments for children with DMD include:
Advances in care have improved the life expectancy for people with DMD. Researchers are working on developing new medicines.
In addition to muscle weakness throughout the body, DMD can cause serious problems for the heart and lungs. Your child may need these tests:
Because DMD is a genetic disorder, you can’t do much to prevent it. But if DMD runs in your family, you may consider talking with a genetic counselor and getting testing before having children. If you or your partner has the DMD change, you may decide to check your fertilized eggs and only implant those that do not have DMD. If you or your partner recently got pregnant, you can also choose to test the fluid outside the fetus to see if the fetus has DMD.
Work with your child’s healthcare provider and his or her healthcare team. Your child may need healthcare providers that can help with the neuromuscular, orthopedic, respiratory, and heart problems of DMD. Your family may get help from social and mental health support.
Physical therapists and occupational therapists can help your child keep his or her independence and mobility as the condition gets worse.
While your child can still walk, some helpful therapies include:
Once your child is using a wheelchair full-time, the following may also help:
You and your family may want to look for more information on your child’s condition at the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
Article Last Updated: November 25, 2018
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