Duchenne muscular dystrophy

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Duchenne muscular dystrophy


The group of conditions called muscular dystrophies are characterized by muscle weakness and degeneration. Duchenne is a relatively common, severe muscular dystrophy . Becker muscular dystrophy is less common and less severe. Becker and Duchenne muscular dystrophy were once considered to be separate conditions. In the 1990s, researchers showed that Duchenne and Becker muscular dystrophy have the same etiology (underlying cause). However, the two disorders remain distinct based on different ages on onset, rates of progression, and some distinct symptoms.


Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) and Becker muscular dystrophy (BMD) are both defined by progressive muscle weakness and atrophy. Both conditions are caused by a mutation in the same gene and usually affect only boys. Symptoms of Duchenne muscular dystrophy usually begin in childhood, and boys with DMD are often in wheelchairs by the age of 12 years. Symptoms of Becker muscular dystrophy begin later, and men with BMD typically do not require wheelchairs until their 20s.

Boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy are usually diagnosed at a young age. Boys with Becker muscular dystrophy are often diagnosed much later. Both conditions are progressive, although DMD progresses more quickly than BMD. Unfortunately, no treatments exist to slow or prevent progression of the disease. Skeletal muscles are affected initially. Eventually the muscles of the heart are also affected, and both conditions are fatal. The life expectancy of males with Duchenne and Becker is 18 years and approximately 45 years, respectively. Both conditions are caused by disorders of the muscle, not of the nerves that control the muscle.

Genetic profile

Duchenne and Becker muscular dystrophy are both caused by mutations in the DMD gene on the X chromosome. This is an exceptionally large gene, and control of its expression is complex.

Humans each have 46 chromosomes , of which 23 are inherited from the mother and 23 are inherited from the father. The sets of 23 chromosomes are complimentary: each contains the same set of genes. Therefore, every human has a pair of every gene. Genes are the sequences of DNA that encode instructions for growth, development, and functioning. One of the 23 pairs of chromosomes may not be complimentary: the sex chromosomes. Boys have an X chromosome and a Y chromosome. Girls have two X chromosomes.

Scientists often say that every person has the same genes, and that the genes on a pair of complimentary chromosomes are the same. It is true that a specific gene at a specific place on each chromosome provides the body with a very specific instruction, i.e. plays a particular functional role. However, most genes have multiple forms. Scientists call the various forms of a gene alleles. A given gene may have multiple alleles that function normally and multiple alleles that lead to physical problems.

Mutations (changes) in the DMD gene cause Duchenne and Becker muscular dystrophy. The DMD gene provides instructions for a protein called dystrophin. Mutations in DMD associated with Duchenne often completely disrupt production of dystrophin, such that no dystrophin is present. Mutations in DMD associated with Becker lead to a reduced amount of dystrophin being made and/or abnormal dystrophin. Certain mutations (alleles) in the DMD gene lead to the symptoms of DMD and other mutations lead to the symptoms of BMD.

Sex linked inheritance

Because the DMD gene is on the X chromosome, Duchenne and Becker muscular dystrophy affect only boys. Most females have two X chromosomes. Thus, if a female inherits an X chromosome with a mutation in the DMD gene, she has another normal DMD gene on her other X chromosome that protects her from developing symptoms. Women who have one mutated gene and one normal gene are called carriers. Boys, on the other hand, have an X and a Y chromosome. The Y chromosome has a different set of genes than the X chromosome; it mostly contains genes that provide instructions for male development. If a boy has a mutation in the DMD gene on his X chromosome, he has no normal DMD gene and he has muscular dystrophy.

If a woman has one son with Duchenne or Becker and no other family history, she may or may not be a carrier. If a woman has another family member with Duchenne or Becker muscular dystrophy, and a son with muscular dystrophy, it is assumed that she is a carrier. The risk for a male child to inherit the mutated gene from his carrier mother is 50% with each pregnancy. Based on the family history, geneticists can determine the likelihood that a woman is or is not a carrier. Based on this estimate, risks to have a son with muscular dystrophy can be provided.

New mutations

The DMD gene is very large and new mutations are fairly common. A new mutation is a mutation that occurs for the first time, that no other members have. Approximately 1/3 of males with Duchenne who have no family history of muscular dystrophy have the condition because of a new mutation that is only present in themselves. In this case, the affected male's mother is not a carrier. Approximately 2/3 of males with Duchenne and no family history have it because of a new mutation that occurred in a relative. In other words, even if the affected male is the first in his family his mother may still be carrier. The new mutation could have happened for the first time in the affected male's mother, or the new mutation could have occurred in his maternal grandmother or grandfather (or their parents, or their parents, etc.).

Sometimes a woman or man has mutations in the DMD gene of his or her sperm or eggs, but not in the other cells of his or her body. The mutation may even be in some sperm and/or eggs but not in others. This situation is called "germline mosaicism". Germline cells are the egg and sperm cells. A woman or man with germline mosaicism may have more than one affected son even though genetic studies of his or her blood show that he or she is not a carrier. Geneticists can estimate the risk that a person has germline mosaicism, and provide information regarding the risk for a person with germline mosaicism to have a child with muscular dystrophy.


Duchenne muscular dystrophy affects approximately 1/3,500 males. Males from every ethnicity are affected. Becker muscular dystrophy is much less common than Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The incidence of Becker muscular dystrophy is approximately 1/18,000.

Signs and symptoms

Both Becker and Duchenne muscular dystrophy initially affect skeletal muscle. Muscle weakness is the first symptom. Both conditions are progressive. Duchenne progresses more rapidly than Becker. People with Duchenne usually begin to use a wheelchair in their early teens, while people with Becker muscular dystrophy may not use a wheelchair until their twenties or later. In the late stages of both diseases, the cardiac muscles begin to be affected. Impairment of the heart and cardiac muscles leads to death. Some female carriers have mild muscle weakness.

People with muscular dystrophy often develop contractures. A contracture makes a joint difficult to move. The joint becomes frozen in place, sometimes in a painful position. Scoliosis (curvature of the spine) is another common problem. Most people with Duchenne have normal intelligence, but cognition is affected in some. Cognition is not usually affected in Becker muscular dystrophy.


The DMD gene contains instructions for a protein called dystrophin. Dystrophin is part of muscle cells and some nerve cells. Its function is not entirely understood. Based on its location in the muscle cell, scientists think that dystrophin may help maintain the structural integrity of muscle cells as they contract. People with Duchenne make very little or no dystrophin, and people with Becker make less than normal and/or semi-functional dystophin. When there is not enough dystrophin in the muscle, it becomes weak and starts to waste away. The muscle tissue is replaced by a fatty, fibrous tissue.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy

The first symptoms of Duchenne muscular dystrophy are usually noticed in early childhood. Delays in developmental milestones, such as sitting and standing, are common. The affected child's gait is often a characteristic waddle or toe-walk. He often stumbles, and running is difficult. While parents notice these symptoms retrospectively, and may notice them at the time, muscular dystrophy often is not suspected until additional signs are apparent. By the age of four to five years, it is difficult for the child to climb stairs or rise from a sitting position on the floor. It is around this time that the diagnosis is usually made. A particular method, called the Gower sign is used by the child to raise himself from sitting on the floor. These motor problems are caused by weakness in large muscles close to the center of the body (proximal).

Although some muscles, such as the calves, appear to be large and defined, the muscle is actually atrophied and weak. It appears large because deposits of fatty, fibrous tissue are replacing muscle tissue. Enlarged calves are a characteristic sign of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and are said have pseudohypertrophy. "Pseudo" means false, "hyper" is excessive, and " trophy" is growth or nourishment. Other muscles may also have pseudohypertophy. These muscles feel firm if massaged.

The weakness begins at the center of the body (the pelvis) and progresses outward from the hips and shoulders to the large muscles of the legs, lower trunk, and arms. The weakness is symmetrical; i.e. both sides of the body are equally weak. Early signs of weakness, such as stumbling and difficulty climbing, progress to the point that the affected boy is unable to walk. Boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy usually require wheelchairs by the age of 12 years. Eventually the muscles that support the neck are affected. The muscles of the digestive tract are affected in some males in the later stages of the disease. Contractures and scoliosis develop. Some boys also have learning disabilities or mild mental retardation.

Cardiac symptoms and life expectancy

The weakness usually affects skeletal muscles first, then cardiac muscle. Skeletal muscles are those that attach to bones and produce movement. The muscle weakness of both Duchenne and Becker muscular dystrophy progresses to affect the cardiac muscles. Weak, abnormal cardiac muscles cause breathing difficulties and heart problems. Breathing difficulties lead to lung infections, such as pneumonia. These problems are fatal in Duchenne, and often fatal in Becker. The life expectancy for a boy with Duchenne muscular dystrophy is the late teens or early twenties. The average life expectancy of males with Becker muscular dystrophy is the mid-forties.

Becker muscular dystrophy

The initial signs of Becker muscular dystrophy may be subtle. The age at which symptoms become apparent is later and more variable than that of DMD. The progression of Becker muscular dystrophy is slower than that of DMD. Like Duchenne muscular dystrophy, boys with BMD develop symmetrical weakness of proximal muscles. The calf muscles often appear especially large. Boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy develop weakness in the muscles that support their necks, but boys with BMD do not. The incidence and severity of learning disabilities and mild mental retardation is less in Becker muscular dystrophy than in Duchenne.

The first symptoms of Becker muscular dystrophy usually appear in the twenties and may appear even later. Weakness of the quadriceps (thigh muscle) or cramping with exercise may be the first symptom. The age of onset and rate of progression are influenced by how much dystrophin is made and how well it functions. Not all males with Becker muscular dystrophy become confined to wheelchairs. If they are, the age at which they begin to use the wheelchair is later than in Duchenne. Many males with Becker muscular dystrophy are ambulatory in their twenties. However, many males with Becker eventually develop cardiac problems, even if they do not have a great deal of skeletal muscle weakness. Cardiac problems are typically fatal by the mid-40s. Some men with Becker muscular dystrophy remain ambulatory (and alive) into their sixties.

Since Duchenne and Becker muscular dystrophy are caused by a mutation (change) in the same gene, the two conditions are usually distinguished based on age of onset and rate of progression. Males with Duchenne usually require wheelchairs by the age of 12 years and males with Becker usually do not require wheelchairs until after the age of 16. However, some males with muscular dystrophy develop symptoms at an intermediate age. Similarly, some males have elevated creatine kinase and abnormal muscle biopsies but do not develop most of the symptoms typical of muscular dystrophy. Some doctors would classify these males with very mild symptoms as having "mild Becker muscular dystrophy". Some individuals who have Becker muscular dystrophy with mildly affected skeletal muscles still develop abnormalities of their cardiac muscle.

Many other forms of muscular dystrophy exist and are part of the diagnoses considered when a person develops signs of Duchenne or Becker muscular dystrophy. The symptoms of Becker muscular dystrophy, in particular, may be caused by many other conditions. However, diagnostic studies can definitively confirm whether an individual has Becker muscular dystrophy.

Affected females

It is unusual, but some females have some or all of the symptoms of muscular dystrophy. Assuming that the diagnosis is correct, this can happen for various reasons. If a woman has Turner syndrome , in which she has one X chromosome instead of two, she could also have Duchenne or Becker muscular dystrophy. (She has no second X chromosome with a normal DMD gene to protect her.) Alternatively, a woman may have muscular dystrophy because of random unfavorable "X inactivation", or because she has a chromosomal translocation. Rarely, she may also have inherited both X chromosomes from the same parent.


The diagnosis of muscular dystrophy is based on physical symptoms, family history, muscle biopsy, measurement of creatine kinase, and genetic testing . Creatine kinase (CK) may also be called creatine phosphokinase or CPK. It is a protein present in skeletal muscle, cardiac muscle, and the brain.

Creatine kinase is released into the blood as muscle cells die. The level of CK in the blood is increased if a person has muscular dystrophy. The level in a male with Duchenne is often more than ten times the normal level, and the level in a male with Becker is often at least five times more than the normal level. The level of CK in the blood of female carriers is variable. Approximately 50% of Duchenne muscular dystrophy carriers have slightly to greatly elevated serum creatine kinase. Only about 30% of carriers of Becker muscular dystrophy have elevated creatine kinase. Therefore, the measurement of creatine kinase is not an accurate predictor of carrier status.

If a muscle biopsy is performed, a small piece of muscle tissue is removed from the patient. Special studies are performed on the tissue. Early in the course of the disease, the muscle shows general abnormalities. Later in the disease, the muscle tissue appears more abnormal. The fat and fibrous tissues that are replacing the muscle fibers are visable.

Another specialized test of muscle function, the electromyogram (EMG) may be performed. The EMG records the electrical activity of a muscle. This test is used to determine whether the symptoms are the result of an underlying muscle problem or a nerve problem. Nerves stimulate muscles to contract. A non-functioning muscle due to a nerve problem often causes the same symptoms as a non-functioning muscle caused by a problem with the muscle.

Genetic testing

Genetic testing is a useful diagnostic tool because the diagnosis can be made without an invasive muscle biopsy. Blood from the person suspected to have muscular dystrophy is analyzed at a specialty laboratory. Genetic testing will confirm that the DMD gene is abnormal in most males affected with muscular dystrophy (70% with DMD and 85% with BMD). The disease causing mutation will be unidentifiable in some males who have muscular dystrophy. Therefore, an abnormal test result is definitive, but a normal test result is not. In these cases, muscle biopsy may be necessary to confirm the diagnosis. Muscle biopsy may be helpful to determine whether a young person with mild symptoms has Duchenne or Becker even when the diagnosis of muscular dystrophy is established by genetic testing.

The severity of the mutation is correlated to the severity of the disease. For example, mutations that completely eliminate the dystrophin protein are associated with DMD much more often than they are associated with BMD. Particular mutations have been associated with intellectual impairment. The severity of symptoms can be somewhat predicted by the mutation present.

Even when a mutation in the DMD gene has been identified in the affected family member, genetic testing to determine whether or not the females are carriers may not be straightforward.

In some families, a special form of genetic testing called "linkage testing" may be helpful. Linkage genetic testing can be performed when the diagnosis of Duchenne or Becker muscular dystrophy is certain in more than one family member but no mutation is identified in the DMD gene. Linkage testing requires the participation of multiple family members. Unique DNA sequences within the gene and flanking the gene are analyzed to determine whether the sequences are those associated with the deleterious gene or with the normal gene. This method is not 100% accurate.

If a woman knows that she is a carrier, prenatal and preimplantation diagnosis are available. If the specific DMD or BMD mutation has been identified in a family member, genetic testing can be performed on the fetus. The procedures used to obtain fetal cells are chorionic villus sampling (CVS) and amniocentesis . CVS is usually performed between 10 and 12 weeks of pregnancy, and amniocentesis is usually performed after 16 weeks. Whether amniocentesis or CVS is performed, chromosomal analysis of the fetal cells will show whether the baby is male or female. Linkage testing may also be performed prenatally.

Treatment and management

There is no cure for muscular dystrophy. However, doctors are getting better at treating the symptoms. Many researchers are searching for preventative measures and for a cure. In 2001, therapies focus on treating the associated symptoms.

Preventative measures

Exercise and physical therapy help to prevent joint contractures and maintain mobility. Avoiding obesity is important. Orthopedic devices may delay the age at which an affected boy begins to use a wheelchair, and are often used to treat scoliosis. Motorized wheelchairs and other devices help an affected person who has become disabled to maintain his independence as long as possible. When the cardiac muscles become affected, respiratory care may be necessary. Cardiac function should be evaluated in adult males with Becker muscular dystrophy even when skeletal muscles are mildly affected. Some women who are carriers of Duchenne muscular dystrophy develop heart disease related to changes in their cardiac muscle. Therefore, surveillance for heart disease should be a consideration for women who are carriers of DMD.

Experimental therapies

Some researchers are trying to deliver normal dystrophin protein to the muscle. If this were done by gene therapy , a normal copy of the DMD gene would be inserted into the muscle cells. In 2001, neither gene therapy nor dystrophin protein replacement is available. In fact, this research is in the early stages. But the theoretical possibility gives researchers hope that in the future there may be a cure.

Researchers have also experimentally transferred healthy muscle cells into the tissue of individuals with muscular dystrophy. This is not a standard treatment as of 2001. However, it provides another hope that in the future an effective treatment will be developed.

Claims have been made that a class of medications called corticosteroids slows the progression of muscle destruction in muscular dystrophy. The use of these drugs is controversial. Corticosteroids have not been proven to have a long-term effect. Also, corticosteroids have many serious side effects. Cortisone is a corticosteroid, and prednisone is similar to cortisone.

Discovering the DMD gene allowed researchers to create animal models for muscular dystrophy. They have created mice and other animals that have Duchenne muscular dystrophy in order to more effectively study the disease and test the efficacy of treatments. This development also provides hope for the future.


The prognosis of Duchenne muscular dystrophy is confinement to a wheelchair by the age of 12 years, and usually death by the late teens or early twenties. The prognosis for Becker muscular dystrophy varies. Some individuals with BMD require a wheelchair after 16 years of age, but others remain ambulatory into middle adulthood. Some mildly affected individuals never require a wheelchair. The average life expectancy for Becker muscular dystrophy is the mid-forties. Both conditions are progressively debilitating.

Because Duchenne is a relatively common and severe condition, many people very actively promote further funding, research, and support of affected individuals. Associations to help families with muscular dystrophy have chapters all over the world. Families and researchers are hopeful that the genetic discoveries of the 1990s will lead to new treatments and cures in the next millennium. However, the obstacles between understanding the pathogenesis of a disease and creating an effective treatment are large. This is especially true of muscular dystrophy.



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