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Dystonia - Causes of dystonia

Dystonia can be primary or secondary depending on whether it's been passed down through the family or caused by another underlying condition.

Primary dystonia

Most cases of primary dystonia are thought to be caused by problems with a part of the brain called the basal ganglia.

The basal ganglia is a collection of brain cells deep within the brain which influences other parts of the brain that control muscles. This is done by using special messenger-chemicals called neurotransmitters.

There are currently at least 12 types (or sub-types) of dystonia that are linked to genetic mutations, including generalised dystonia, dopa-responsive dystonia and paroxysmal dystonia.

Read more about the different types of dystonia.

The genes responsible for these types of dystonia are passed down through families in a pattern that's known as autosomal dominant. This means that if you have one of these abnormal genes, there's a 1 in 2 chance that your children will inherit that gene and develop dystonia.

Late-onset primary dystonia is poorly understood and its cause (or causes) are unknown.

Secondary dystonia

Secondary dystonia, also known as acquired dystonia, can have a wide range of causes including:

  • Parkinson’s disease - a neurological condition caused by the lack of a neurotransmitter called dopamine
  • Huntington’s disease - an inherited condition caused by a lack of cholesterol in the brain
  • Wilson’s disease - a genetic condition that leads to a build-up of copper in the body’s tissues
  • multiple sclerosis - a condition caused by damage to the nervous system
  • cerebral palsy - a condition caused by brain damage that occurs before or soon after birth
  • certain medications - such as those used to treat epilepsy, can cause dystonia as a side effect in a small number of people 
  • infections - such as HIV or encephalitis (a brain infection)
  • injury - to the skull or spine
  • brain tumours
  • stroke - a serious medical condition where the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off
  • poisoning - such as carbon monoxide poisoning

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