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There is no specific treatment that can stop or reverse the progression of any form of muscular dystrophy (MD). All forms of MD are genetic and cannot be prevented. Treatment is aimed at keeping the patient independent for as long as possible and preventing complications that result from weakness, reduced mobility, and cardiac and respiratory difficulties. Treatment may involve a combination of approaches, including physical therapy, drug therapy, and surgery.
Assisted ventilation is often needed to treat respiratory muscle weakness that accompanies many forms of MD, especially in the later stages. Oxygen is fed through a flexible mask (or, in some cases, a tube inserted through the esophagus and into the lungs) to help the lungs inflate fully. Since respiratory difficulty may be most extreme at night, some patients may need overnight ventilation. A mask worn over the face is connected by tube to a machine that puts out intermittent bursts of forced oxygen. Obese patients with Duchenne MD may develop obstructive sleep apnea and require nighttime ventilation. Patients on a ventilator may also require the use of a gastric feeding tube.
Drug therapy may be prescribed to delay muscle degeneration. Corticosteroids such as prednisone can slow the rate of muscle deterioration in Duchenne MD and help children retain strength and prolong independent walking by as much as several years. However, these medicines have side effects such as weight gain and bone fragility that can be especially troubling in children. Immunosuppressive drugs such as cyclosporin and azathioprine can delay some damage to dying muscle cells. Drugs that may provide short-term relief from myotonia (muscle spasms and weakness) include mexiletine; phenytoin; baclofen, which blocks signals sent from the spinal cord to contract the muscles; dantrolene, which interferes with the process of muscle contraction; and quinine. (Drugs for myotonia are not effective in myotonic MD but work well for myotonia congenita, a genetic neuromuscular disorder characterized by the slow relaxation of the muscles.) Anticonvulsants, also known as antiepileptics, are used to control seizures and some muscle activity. Commonly prescribed oral anticonvulsants include carbamazepine, phenytoin, clonazepam, gabapentin, topiramate, and felbamate. Respiratory infections may be treated with antibiotics.
Physical therapy can help prevent deformities, improve movement, and keep muscles as flexible and strong as possible. Options include passive stretching, postural correction, and exercise. A program is developed to meet the individual patient's needs. Therapy should begin as soon as possible following diagnosis, before there is joint or muscle tightness.
Dietary changes have not been shown to slow the progression of MD. Proper nutrition is essential, however, for overall health. Limited mobility or inactivity resulting from muscle weakness can contribute to obesity, dehydration, and constipation. A high-fiber, high-protein, low-calorie diet combined with recommended fluid intake may help. MD patients with swallowing or breathing disorders and those persons who have lost the ability to walk independently should be monitored for signs of malnutrition.
Occupational therapy may help some patients deal with progressive weakness and loss of mobility. Some individuals may need to learn new job skills or new ways to perform tasks while other persons may need to change jobs. Assistive technology may include modifications to home and workplace settings and the use of motorized wheelchairs, wheelchair accessories, and adaptive utensils.
Corrective surgery is often performed to ease complications from MD.