The Muscular System - Ailments: what can go wrong with the muscular system

The Muscular System Ailments What Can Go Wrong With The Muscular System 2608
Photo by: Kzenon

With their rich supply of blood, skeletal muscles are fairly resistant to infection. When following a healthy lifestyle, few people will experience a life-threatening muscular ailment. Though rare, serious disorders can target the muscles. A few disorders can affect the muscles indirectly by attacking the nerves that stimulate muscles. Among these ailments are botulism and tetanus.

The following are a few of the disorders that can affect the muscular system, from common injuries caused by misuse to indirectly caused serious disorders.


Botulism, or severe food poisoning, is caused by a toxin (poison) produced by a certain bacteria that is sometimes present in foods not properly canned or preserved. Once released by the bacteria in the body, the toxin prevents motor neurons from releasing acetylcholine at neuromuscular junctions. Muscle fibers are then not stimulated to contract and paralysis (partial or complete loss of the ability to move) results. As botulism progresses, the muscles controlling breathing fail and the affected individual suffocates.

Botulism is a serious disease that requires prompt medical attention. Antibiotics are not effective in preventing or treating the disease. Medical researchers have developed an antitoxin (antibody capable of acting against a toxin) for treating botulism. However, since it only works on the toxin when it is not attached to nerve endings, the antitoxin must be given to an infected individual as soon as possible. Motor neuron endings that have already been affected by the toxin cannot be saved. If an individual survives a severe case of botulism, it may weeks to months to years for the body to recover fully, if at all.

Muscular dystrophy

The most common type of genetic (inherited) muscular disorder is muscular dystrophy. This disease causes skeletal muscles to waste away slowly and progressively. Medical researchers generally recognize nine types of muscular dystrophy. The causes behind some of these types are not well understood. In others, researchers believe that proteins used by muscle fibers to protect their membranes are defective, leading to deterioration of the membranes and the muscle fibers.

The most frequent and most dreaded type of muscular dystrophy appears in boys aged three to seven. (Boys are usually affected because it is a sex-linked condition; girls are carriers of the disease and are usually not affected.) In the United States, this type of the disease occurs in about 1 in 3,500 births and affects approximately 8,000 boys and young men.

Botulism (BOCH-a-liz-em): Form of food poisoning in which a bacterial toxin prevents the release of acetylcholine at neuromuscular junctions, resulting in paralysis.

Muscular dystrophy (MUS-kyu-lar DIS-tro-fee): One of several inherited muscular diseases in which a person's muscles gradually and irreversibly deteriorate, causing weakness and eventually complete disability.

Myasthenia gravis (my-ass-THEH-nee-ah GRA-vis): Autoimmune disease in which antibodies attack acetylcholine, blocking the transmission of nerve impulses to muscle fibers.

Tetanus (TET-n-es): Bacterial disease in which a bacterial toxin causes the repetitive stimulation of muscle fibers, resulting in convulsive muscle spasms and rigidity.

The first symptom of this disease type is clumsiness in walking and a tendency to fall due to muscle weakness in the legs and pelvis. The disease then spreads to other areas in the body. Sometimes, muscle tissue is replaced by fatty tissue, giving the false impression that the muscles have become enlarged. By the age of ten, a boy is usually confined to a wheelchair or a bed. Death usually occurs before adulthood because of a respiratory infection brought on by the weakness of respiratory or breathing muscles.

Another type of muscular dystrophy appears later in life and affects both sexes equally. The first signs appear in adolescence. The muscles affected are those in the face, shoulders, and upper arms. The hips and legs may also be affected. This type of muscular dystrophy occurs in about 1 out of every 20,000 people. Individuals afflicted with this disease may survive until middle age.

Currently, there is no known cure for any type of muscular dystrophy. Certain drugs have been developed that slow the progression of some types. Physical therapy involving regular, nonstrenuous exercise is often prescribed to help maintain general good health.

Myasthenia gravis

Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune disease that causes muscle weakness. An autoimmune disease is one in which antibodies (proteins normally produced by the body to fight infection) attack and damage the body's own normal cells, causing tissue destruction. In myasthenia gravis, antibodies attack receptors on the membranes of muscle fibers that receive acetylcholine from motor neurons. Unable to receive acetylcholine, the muscle fibers cannot be stimulated to contract and weakness develops.

About 30,000 people in the United States are affected by myasthenia gravis. The disease can occur at any age, but it is most common in women between the ages of twenty and forty. The muscles of the neck, throat, lips, tongue, face, and eyes are primarily affected. Muscles of the arms, legs, and trunk may also be involved. Depending on the severity of the disease, a person may have difficulty moving their eyes, seeing clearly, walking, speaking clearly, chewing and swallowing, and even breathing. Physical exertion, heat from the Sun, hot showers, hot drinks, and stress may all increase symptoms.

There is no cure for myasthenia gravis, but drugs have been developed that effectively control the symptoms in most people. The disease only causes early death if the respiratory muscles are affected and stop functioning properly.

An intramuscular injection. Medication is injected into muscles when larger volumes of a drug are needed. (Reproduced by permission of Photo Researchers, Inc.)
An intramuscular injection. Medication is injected into muscles when larger volumes of a drug are needed. (Reproduced by permission of
Photo Researchers, Inc.

Spasms and cramps

Muscle spasms and cramps are spontaneous, often painful muscle contractions. Cramps are usually defined as spasms that last over a period of time. Any muscle in the body may be affected, but spasms and cramps are most common in the calves, feet, and hands. While painful, spasms and cramps are harmless and are not related to any disorder, in most cases.

Spasms or cramps may be caused by abnormal activity at any stage in the muscle contraction process, from the brain sending an electrical signal to the muscle fiber relaxing. Prolonged exercise, where sensations of pain and fatigue are often ignored, can lead to such severe energy shortages that a muscle cannot relax, causing a spasm or cramp. Dehydration—the loss of fluids and salts through sweating, vomiting, or diarrhea—can disrupt ion balances in both muscles and nerves. This can prevent them from responding and recovering normally, which can lead to spasms and cramps.

Most simple spasms and cramps require no treatment other than patience and stretching. Gentle stretching and massaging of the affected muscle may ease the pain and hasten recovery.


Strains are tears in a muscle. Sometimes called pulled muscles, they usually occur because of overexertion (too much tension placed on a muscle) or improper lifting techniques. Strains are common and can affect anyone. Symptoms of strains range from mild muscle stiffness to great soreness.

Mild strains can be treated at home. Basic first aid consists of RICE: R est, I ce for forty-eight hours, C ompression (wrapping in an elastic bandage), and E levation. Strains can be prevented by stretching and warming up before exercising and using proper lifting techniques.


Like botulism, tetanus is also caused by a toxin released by a bacteria. This bacteria invades the body most often through deep puncture wounds exposed to contaminated soil. Many people associate tetanus with wounds from rusty nails or other dirty objects, but any wound can be a source. In the body, the tetanus bacteria releases its toxin, which affects motor neurons at neuromuscular junctions. Its effect, however, is opposite that of the botulism toxin. This toxin causes the repetitive stimulation of muscle fibers, resulting in convulsive muscle spasms and rigidity.

Tetanus is often called "lockjaw" because one of the most common symptoms is a stiff jaw, unable to be opened. The disease sometimes affects the body only at the site of infection. More often, it spreads to the entire body. The uncontrollable muscle spasms produced are sometimes severe enough to cause broken bones. Tetanus results in death when the muscles controlling breathing become "locked" and cannot function.

Up to 30 percent of tetanus victims in the United States die. Prompt medical attention is crucial in handling the disease. Treatment, which can take several weeks, includes antibiotics to kill the bacteria and shots of antitoxin to neutralize the toxin. Recovery can then take six or more weeks. Tetanus, however, is easily preventable through vaccination, which helps the body develop antibodies against the bacteria.

User Contributions:

Arnie Knutsen
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Aug 16, 2014 @ 10:10 am
My muscles are so contraced that when i stand ,i can barely move ,walking is impossible ,full time tension headache,and this has been continious ,over one year.This is due to my doctor taking me off 9 years of high doses of lorasapam in 4 days . Does modern medicine know of anything to cure this ?
David Riklan
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Jun 16, 2021 @ 5:05 am
My Myasthenia Gravis (MG) symptoms started at the age of 51, I have had countless plasma exchanges as my veins are bad. I also needed Hickman lines inserted. I have been on azathioprine, mycophenolate (CellCept), methotrexate and none have worked. I'm currently done with my herbal remedy I purchased from multivitamincure. org which has totally cured my condition with a surprise after almost four months of their usage, I was discouraged and never thought I would be myasthenia gravis (MG) free today,to me the best way to get rid of this condition is multivitamincure. org herbal recommendation because all medications I used never worked include mycophenolate (CellCept).

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