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Myasthenia Gravis

Myasthenia gravis is a rare, chronic disorder that causes weakness and rapid fatigue of muscles. The muscle weakness develops slowly, first affecting the facial muscles and causing symptoms that include drooping eyelids, double vision, and difficulty talking, chewing, swallowing, or breathing.

The exact cause of myasthenia gravis is not known. But it is known that the antibodies formed by the body's immune system to fight infection instead attack normal muscle tissue. Myasthenia gravis can occur at any age in both women and men. But it is most common in young women who have problems with the thymus gland.

Treatment for myasthenia gravis includes medicine to help reduce and improve muscle weakness. Surgery to remove the thymus gland may be helpful in some cases.

  • Symptoms

    Myasthenia gravis: Overview

    Myasthenia gravis (say “MI-ess-thin-e-a GRAH-viss”) is muscle weakness that often gets better when you rest and gets worse with activity. You can start the day feeling strong, but after a little activity, you find yourself feeling weak. It may be hard to talk or to keep your eyes focused, and your eyelids may droop.

    This problem starts when the immune system attacks the body’s own muscle cells. The immune system is supposed to fight off viruses and other germs, but sometimes it turns on the person’s own body. (This is called autoimmune disease.) Myasthenia gravis most often affects the muscles that control eye and facial movement and those that help us chew and swallow.

    Your doctor may prescribe medicine that can help improve your muscle weakness. He or she may recommend that you have surgery to remove the thymus gland, which may improve your immune system problem and help you regain your strength. There are other treatments that can help if you have repeated periods of weakness. With treatment and home care, you may be able to keep your strength and lead a normal life.

  • Treatment

    How is myasthenia gravis treated?

    Your doctor may prescribe medicines to help treat the muscle weakness and muscle fatigue caused by the condition. Some of these medicines improve the communication between the nerves and the muscles. Others are used to treat the problem with your immune system. The medicines can help improve your muscle strength.

    Your doctor may suggest that you have surgery to remove the thymus gland. It is a part of your immune system. Removing the gland may lessen the immune system's attacks on your muscle cells. It may also help you regain your strength. For some people, surgery can reduce the need for medicines.

    There are a few more treatments your doctor may suggest. They act quickly, but they are not used for the long term. They can help you manage symptoms while other treatments take their full effect. Your doctor may also suggest them if your symptoms flare up.

  • When to Call

    Myasthenia gravis: When to call

    Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

    • You have severe trouble breathing.

    Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

    • You have trouble swallowing.
    • You are or think you may be pregnant and you have myasthenia gravis.
    • You have double vision.
  • Self-Care

    How can you care for myasthenia gravis?

    • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
    • If you have trouble swallowing your medicine, talk to your doctor about other ways to take it.
    • Get plenty of rest. Plan your activities so that you have rest periods. It is better to go at a moderate pace with frequent rests than to be so active that you tire out easily.
    • Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
    • If you get double vision, talk to your doctor about wearing an eye patch.
    • If you get tired while chewing, rest between bites. Try foods that are chopped, cooked, or softened. Eat several small meals throughout the day rather than 2 or 3 big meals.
    • Avoid getting too hot, because heat seems to make symptoms worse.
    • Consider joining a support group with other people who have myasthenia gravis. These groups can be a good source of information and tips for what to do. Your doctor can tell you how to contact a support group.

    Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.