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Multiple system atrophy, or MSA, is a rare neurological disorder that impairs your body’s involuntary functions, including:
This disorder has many similar symptoms to Parkinson’s disease, such as impaired movement, poor balance, and muscle rigidity.
According to Orphanet, a consortium of about 40 countries that collects information on rare diseases, MSA occurs in about five out of every 100,000 people. The Mayo Clinic states that MSA usually occurs between 50 and 60 years of age and tends to affect men more than women.
This progressive disorder is serious.
Because MSA causes progressive damage to the nervous system, it can cause a wide range of symptoms, including changes in facial movement, such as:
MSA can also cause a loss of fine motor skills, which can lead to difficulty with:
MSA can cause difficulty with movement, such as:
MSA can cause tremors, which can:
MSA can cause changes in speech and voice, including:
Other symptoms of MSA include:
There’s no known cause for MSA. Some current researchers are evaluating the possibility of a genetic aspect of the disease. Other researchers are investigating the involvement of an environmental toxin.
MSA causes certain areas of the brain to shrink, including:
Microscopic analysis of damaged brain tissue from people with MSA reveals an abnormally high level of a protein known as alpha-synuclein, suggesting that excessive production of this protein may be directly linked to the condition.
There’s no specific test for MSA, but your neurologist may make a diagnosis based on:
MSA is difficult to diagnose and is particularly difficult to differentiate from Parkinson’s disease and atypical Parkinsonian disorders. Your doctor may need to perform a variety of tests to make a diagnosis. The primary symptoms often related to MSA are early signs of urogenital dysfunction, such as a loss of bladder control and erectile dysfunction.
Your doctor may measure your blood pressure when standing and lying down, and examine your eyes, your nerves, and your muscles to help them determine if you have MSA.
Further tests may include an MRI of the head and a determination of plasma norepinephrine hormone levels in your blood. Your urine may also be tested.
Complications linked to MSA may include:
MSA can lead to long-term complications, like:
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for MSA. Your doctor will help you manage the disorder by providing treatment that reduces symptoms as much as possible while maintaining maximum body function. Certain medications used to treat MSA can lead to side effects.
To manage symptoms, your doctor may recommend the following:
During the early stages of incontinence, your doctor may prescribe medications to help you control problems. During later stages, your doctor may recommend the insertion of a permanent catheter to allow you to pass urine comfortably.
If you’re experiencing difficulty swallowing, your doctor may recommend that you eat softer foods. If swallowing or breathing become difficult, your doctor may recommend surgically inserting a feeding or breathing tube to make these activities easier. In the later stages of MSA, your doctor may recommend a feeding tube that goes directly to your stomach.
Through gentle exercise and repeated motion, physical therapy may help you maintain muscle strength and motor skills for as long as possible while MSA progresses. Speech-language therapy may also help you to maintain speech.
Currently, there’s no cure for MSA. For a majority of people, life expectancy is seven to nine years from diagnosis. Some people with the disease live for up to 18 years after being diagnosed.
Research on this rare disease is ongoing, and therapies that work for other neurodegenerative disease may prove to be effective for this disease as well.
Written by: Corinna Underwood
Medically reviewed on: Feb 25, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine
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