Muscular dystrophy in children: know the signs
Learn to recognise the early signs of muscular dystrophy – and give your child the best possible care.
Muscular dystrophy (MD) is a group of inherited muscle disorders characterised by gradually increasing weakness and degeneration of the muscles that control voluntary bodily movement.
Muscle tissue progressively wastes away and is replaced by connective and fatty tissue. In most cases, the arms, legs and spine become deformed.
The most common type, Duchenne muscular dystrophy (about 95% of cases), results from a lack of the protein dystrophin required for proper muscle function.
Many children with MD may initially follow a normal course of development, but in time symptoms will start to appear.
If you notice any of the following signs in your child, they warrant a medical check-up – especially if you know that someone in your family has or had MD, or is a carrier (note, however, that although these features are typically seen in MD, they could potentially have several other causes as well):
- Muscle weakness that worsens over time. This is a common defining symptom of all forms of MD.
- However, each form of MD differs with regards to the order in which symptoms occur and which parts of the body are affected.
- A child that is at least 18 months old but still has not begun to walk: about half of boys with Duchenne MD are not walking at 18 months. Some children with MD may also have trouble learning to sit up independently.
- A child with MD may start to stumble, waddle when they walk or walk unsteadily, struggle to go upstairs, or toe-walk (walk on the toes or balls of the feet without the heels touching the ground).
- Clumsiness and frequent falls for no apparent reason.
- Difficulty getting up from a lying or sitting position on the floor. Children with MD often have a characteristic way of rising. To stand, the child places his feet apart, raises his bottom, and pushes up off the floor. He then “walks” his hands up his knees and thighs to stand upright.
- Difficulty pushing objects such as a tricycle or a wagon.
- Development of enlarged calves (technically called “calf pseudohypertrophy”), which may occur in MD as the muscle is destroyed and replaced by fat and scar tissue.
- Children with MD usually can’t run well or jump with both feet together.
- Walking with stomach forward and shoulders back, causing a sway back.
- Difficulty moving the neck.
- Some children with MD have speech or language delays, or behavior problems.
- Muscle cramps.
- Problems with swallowing or breathing.
If your child displays any of these signs, especially if there’s a family history of MD, ask your doctor about referral to a specialist experienced in neuromuscular disorders.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). (2011). Muscular dystrophy: Hope through research.