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Health Team

Myasthenia gravis often misdiagnosed, misunderstood

Posted June 24, 2010 5:40 p.m. EDT
Updated June 24, 2010 6:35 p.m. EDT

— A drooping eyelid could be more than just a sign of aging. Physicians said it could indicate someone has myasthenia gravis.

The symptoms of the autoimmune disease can be vague, so many doctors misdiagnose it and some patients might go without proper treatment for a long time.

Dr. James Howard, a neurologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said symptoms of myasthenia gravis include chronic muscle fatigue, weakness, blurred vision or double vision, slurred speech and difficulty chewing or swallowing. The only visible symptom, however, is a droopy eyelid.

The disease occurs when the body suddenly doesn't recognize the nerve receptor sites on muscles, Howard said.

"The body mounts an immune attack and tries to reject that. The result is nerve muscle communication is impaired," he said.

Physicians still don't know what causes the disease and who is most at risk.

It's not known to be inherited, but it occasionally affects more than one member of a family. Most patients are older, but it can occur in younger people as well.

Even after they're diagnosed, some myasthenia gravis patients can feel alone and misunderstood.

Patient Jimmy Prince formed a support group for people with myasthenia gravis. He said he had never even heard of the disease when he was diagnosed four years ago.

"When he told me what it was, I had no idea," Prince said.

June is Myasthenia Gravis Awareness Month, and other members of the support group said they like having each other to lean on.

"We relate to each other and try to support each other," Prince said.

"It's just a wonderful, supportive atmosphere," Marisa Menold said. "I'd like to continue going because I appreciate their friendship."

With proper medication, myasthenia gravis can be managed. Treatments are tailored to each individual based on their symptoms and the severity of the disease.

The members of Prince's support group are all on medications to reduce the weakness and fatigue, but they've all had to adjust to a new pace.

"If I don't take a two- to three-hour nap in the middle of the day, I can't function," Lyndsey Peterson said.

"You've got to take a nap. You've got to be aware of the hot weather effects, and we're into that right now," George Nader said.