3 Diseases We Should Understand

This week marks Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy Week to raise awareness of this disorder. I thought I’d take this moment to discuss more common muscular and skeletal disorders that plague us, especially as we age. First to explain:

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a rather rare “genetic disorder characterized by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness. It is one of nine types of muscular dystrophy.” The emphasis here, being genetic. There is no cure and the illness is degenerative. In Hebrew, it is called, “ניוון שרירים” (Nivun  Shririm).

This is not to be confused with Multiple Sclerosis, or טרשת נפוצה, Tareshet Nefotza in Hebrew, “a condition which can affect the brain and/or spinal cord, causing a wide range of potential symptoms, including problems with vision, arm or leg movement, sensation or balance.” There is no cure and the illness is degenerative. It is actually rather rare, affecting between 5-30 out of 100,000 people worldwide. Even though we see people having difficulty walking with MS, it is actually a neurological and not muscular disorder, that is DMD.

A much more common musculo/skeletal condition that affects many of us as we age is osteoarthritis, a breakdown of cartilage in the joints, that can cause swelling, pain, and loss or range of movement over time.

All three of these illnesses affect walking, but for different reasons, obviously. I often get the question, how do I know if I have..?

  • For adult-onset MD, progressive muscle weakness in the face and shoulders could be the first symptom. Blood and muscle tests are used to diagnose this illness, and they are usually pretty accurate.
  • For MS, numbness and tingling in the arms and legs, and loss of field of vision are common symptoms. But again, it is a rather rare illness, so if you have those symptoms don’t automatically assume the worst. I knew of one woman who was convinced she had MS because she was having difficulty walking, only to discover she had a ripped tendon in her hip that required surgery.
  • Osteoarthritis is the most common of these diagnoses. Although it is not life-threatening, as are the other two, it causes a great deal of pain, loss of mobility, and there is no real cure. It is diagnosed mostly through x-ray and MRI. Damage is sometimes confined to a specific joint and sometimes it is systemic.

So what do you do if have one or more of these symptoms?

  1. Don’t panic. Although none of these illnesses are curable, they are treatable. Again, the first two are rare, and the third is not life-threatening.
  2. Do not consult Dr. Google unless you have no anxiety whatsoever in your background, and you are an educated researcher.
  3. Go to your family physician to get referrals for all necessary tests for diagnoses. You start with x-ray and blood tests, then EMG testing (for muscular problems), then MRI. When you have all the necessary data, then you can decide, together with your family doctor, whether you should go to a neurologist or an orthopedist.
  4. See a specialist to help clarify the diagnosis and armed with your diagnosis you can now decide whether you should see a private specialist for a second opinion or treatment plan, or begin treatment.

Obviously, these three diseases are quite different and affect different parts of the body but as they can look the same from the outside, I find that somehow, in people’s minds they are grouped together. Educating yourself and understanding the differences can help you and help you recognize when other’s need help as well.

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