Q&A: Myasthenia Gravis



My husband has been told he has myasthenia gravis. Can you tell us more about this condition?


Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune disease that most commonly affects women ages 40 and younger and men ages 60 and older. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakes cells and body tissues for harmful invaders and produces antibodies against them. In myasthenia gravis, the antibodies attack acetylcholine receptors on muscle cells. Receptors are essentially docking sites where the body’s chemical messengers—which include acetylcholine—bind to cells. Acetylcholine aids muscle contraction, and if its receptors on the muscles are destroyed, the muscles are unable to contract.

The hallmark symptom of myasthenia gravis is muscle weakness that worsens with activity. The weakness typically affects the arms, hands, fingers, legs, and neck—for example, a person’s grip strength won’t be as good, they will tire easily while walking, and may find it harder to hold up their head. For this reason, symptoms may be worse as the day goes on. The eye muscles may be affected, too, resulting in double vision. If the muscles of the face and throat are involved, this may result in drooping eyelids, an altered facial expression, an unusually soft voice, and difficulty chewing and swallowing. In some cases, shortness of breath occurs and may require emergency medical treatment. There are several options for treating myasthenia gravis. Research has suggested that the thymus gland—which controls immune function—may be involved in the condition, and removing it may cure myasthenia gravis in some people. The condition also may be treated with medications. It is possible for myasthenia gravis to go into remission. Self-help strategies for myasthenia gravis include removing tripping hazards, such as rugs; installing grab bars next to the bathtub and toilet; and wearing an eye patch to relieve double vision. If your husband’s chewing and swallowing abilities are affected, it may help for him to eat softer foods and eat smaller meals more often. For more info like this, subscribe to the newsletter at www.focusonhealthyaging.com.