Find information on thousands of medical conditions and prescription drugs.

Myasthenia gravis

Myasthenia gravis (MG, Latin: "grave muscle weakness") is a neuromuscular disease leading to fluctuating weakness and fatiguability. It is one of the best known autoimmune disorders and the antigens and disease mechanisms have well been identified. Weakness is caused by circulating antibodies that block acetylcholine receptors at the post-synaptic neuromuscular junction, inhibiting the stimulative effect of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Myasthenia is treated with immunosuppression and cholinesterase inhibitors. more...

Mac Ardle disease
Macular degeneration
Mad cow disease
Maghazaji syndrome
Mal de debarquement
Malignant hyperthermia
Mallory-Weiss syndrome
Malouf syndrome
Marburg fever
Marfan syndrome
MASA syndrome
Mast cell disease
MAT deficiency
Maturity onset diabetes...
McArdle disease
McCune-Albright syndrome
Mediterranean fever
Megaloblastic anemia
Meleda Disease
Meniere's disease
Mental retardation
Mercury (element)
Metabolic acidosis
Metabolic disorder
Methylmalonic acidemia
Microscopic polyangiitis
Microtia, meatal atresia...
Miller-Dieker syndrome
Mitochondrial Diseases
Mitral valve prolapse
Mobius syndrome
MODY syndrome
Moebius syndrome
Molluscum contagiosum
MOMO syndrome
Mondini Dysplasia
Mondor's disease
Monoclonal gammopathy of...
Morquio syndrome
Motor neuron disease
Moyamoya disease
MPO deficiency
Mullerian agenesis
Multiple chemical...
Multiple endocrine...
Multiple hereditary...
Multiple myeloma
Multiple organ failure
Multiple sclerosis
Multiple system atrophy
Muscular dystrophy
Myalgic encephalomyelitis
Myasthenia gravis
Mycosis fungoides
Myelodysplastic syndromes
Myeloperoxidase deficiency
Myoadenylate deaminase...
Myositis ossificans

Signs and symptoms

The hallmark of myasthenia gravis is muscle weakness that increases during periods of activity and improves after periods of rest. Certain muscles such as those that control eye and eyelid movement, facial expression, chewing, talking, and swallowing are often, but not always, involved in the disorder. The muscles that control breathing and neck and limb movements can also be affected.

Although myasthenia gravis may affect any voluntary muscle, muscles that control eye and eyelid movement, facial expression, and swallowing are most frequently affected. The onset of the disorder may be sudden or rapid. Symptoms often are not immediately recognized as myasthenia gravis; a proportion only receives a diagnosis after more than a year.

In most cases, the first noticeable symptom is weakness of the eye muscles. In others, difficulty in swallowing and slurred speech may be the first signs. The degree of muscle weakness involved in myasthenia gravis varies greatly among patients, ranging from a localized form, limited to eye muscles (ocular myasthenia), to a severe or generalized form in which many muscles - sometimes including those that control breathing - are affected. Symptoms, which vary in type and severity, may include asymmetrical ptosis (a drooping of one or both eyelids), diplopia (blurred or double vision) due to weakness of the muscles that control eye movements, unstable or waddling gait, weakness in arms, hands, fingers, legs, and neck, a change in facial expression, dysphagia (difficulty in swallowing) and shortness of breath, and dysarthria (impaired speech, often nasal due to weakness of the pharyngeal muscles).

A myasthenic crisis may give rise to a generalized paralysis, including those of the respiratory muscles, and assisted ventilation may be required to sustain life. In patients whose respiratory muscles are already weak, crises may be triggered by infection, fever, an adverse reaction to medication, or emotional stress (Bedlack & Sanders 2000).


Myasthenia can be a difficult diagnosis, as the symptoms can be subtle and hard to distinguish from both normal variants and other neurological disorders (Scherer et al 2005).

A thorough physical examination can reveal easy fatiguability, with the weakness improving after rest and worsening again on repeat of the exertion testing. Applying ice to the weak muscle groups may characteristically improve the weakness.

Blood tests

If the diagnosis is suspected, serology can be performed in a blood test to identify antibodies against the acetylcholine receptor. The test has a reasonable sensitivity of 80-96%, but in MG limited to the eye muscles (ocular myasthenia) the test may be negative in up to 50% of the cases. Often, parallel testing is performed for Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome, in which other antibodies (against a voltage-gated calcium channel) are frequently found.


[List your site here Free!]

Myasthenia gravis
From Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 4/6/01 by Richard Robinson


Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune disease that causes muscle weakness.


Myasthenia gravis (MG) affects the neuromuscular junction, interrupting the communication between nerve and muscle, and thereby causing weakness. A person with MG may have difficulty moving their eyes, walking, speaking clearly, swallowing, and even breathing, depending on the severity and distribution of weakness. Increased weakness with exertion, and improvement with rest, is a characteristic feature of MG.

About 30,000 people in the United States are affected by MG. It can occur at any age, but is most common in women who are in their late teens and early twenties, and in men in their sixties and seventies.

Causes & symptoms

Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune disease, meaning it is caused by the body's own immune system. In MG, the immune system attacks a receptor on the surface of muscle cells. This prevents the muscle from receiving the nerve impulses that normally make it respond. MG affects "voluntary" muscles, which are those muscles under conscious control responsible for movement. It does not affect heart muscle or the "smooth" muscle found in the digestive system and other internal organs.

A muscle is stimulated to contract when the nerve cell controlling it releases acetylcholine molecules onto its surface. The acetylcholine lands on a muscle protein called the acetylcholine receptor. This leads to rapid chemical changes in the muscle which cause it to contract. Acetylcholine is then broken down by acetylcholinesterase enzyme, to prevent further stimulation.

In MG, immune cells create antibodies against the acetylcholine receptor. Antibodies are proteins normally involved in fighting infection. When these antibodies attach to the receptor, they prevent it from receiving acetylcholine, decreasing the ability of the muscle to respond to stimulation.

Why the immune system creates these self-reactive "autoantibodies" is unknown, although there are several hypotheses:

  • During fetal development, the immune system generates many B cells that can make autoantibodies, but B cells that could harm the body's own tissues are screened out and destroyed before birth. It is possible that the stage is set for MG when some of these cells escape detection.
  • Genes controlling other parts of the immune system, called MHC genes, appear to influence how susceptible a person is to developing autoimmune disease.
  • Infection may trigger some cases of MG. When activated, the immune system may mistake portions of the acetylcholine receptor for portions of an invading virus, though no candidate virus has yet been identified conclusively.
  • About 10% of those with MG also have thymomas, or benign tumors of the thymus gland. The thymus is a principal organ of the immune system, and researchers speculate that thymic irregularities are involved in the progression of MG.

Some or all of these factors (developmental, genetic, infectious, and thymic) may interact to create the autoimmune reaction.

The earliest symptoms of MG often result from weakness of the extraocular muscles, which control eye movements. Symptoms involving the eye (ocular symptoms) include double vision (diplopia), especially when not gazing straight ahead, and difficulty raising the eyelids (ptosis). A person with ptosis may need to tilt their head back to see. Eye-related symptoms remain the only symptoms for about 15% of MG patients. Another common early symptom is difficulty chewing and swallowing, due to weakness in the bulbar muscles, which are in the mouth and throat. Choking becomes more likely, especially with food that requires extensive chewing.

Weakness usually becomes more widespread within several months of the first symptoms, reaching their maximum within a year in two-thirds of patients. Weakness may involve muscles of the arms, legs, neck, trunk, and face, and affect the ability to lift objects, walk, hold the head up, and speak.

Symptoms of MG become worse upon exertion, and better with rest. Heat, including heat from the sun, hot showers, and hot drinks, may increase weakness. Infection and stress may worsen symptoms. Symptoms may vary from day to day and month to month, with intervals of no weakness interspersed with a progressive decline in strength.

"Myasthenic crisis" may occur, in which the breathing muscles become too weak to provide adequate respiration. Symptoms include weak and shallow breathing, shortness of breath, pale or bluish skin color, and a racing heart. Myasthenic crisis is an emergency condition requiring immediate treatment. In patients treated with anticholinesterase agents, myasthenic crisis must be differentiated from cholinergic crisis related to overmedication.

Pregnancy worsens MG in about one third of women, has no effect in one third, and improves symptoms in another third. About 12% of infants born to women with MG have "neonatal myasthenia," a temporary but potentially life-threatening condition. It is caused by the transfer of maternal antibodies into the fetal circulation just before birth. Symptoms include weakness, floppiness, feeble cry, and difficulty feeding. The infant may have difficulty breathing, requiring the use of a ventilator. Neonatal myasthenia usually clears up within a month.


Myasthenia gravis is often diagnosed accurately by a careful medical history and a neuromuscular exam, but several tests are used to confirm the diagnosis. Other conditions causing worsening of bulbar and skeletal muscles must be considered, including drug-induced myasthenia, thyroid disease, Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome, botulism, and inherited muscular dystrophies.

MG causes characteristic changes in the electrical responses of muscles that may be observed with an electromyogram, which measures muscular response to electrical stimulation. Repetitive nerve stimulation leads to reduction in the height of the measured muscle response, reflecting the muscle's tendency to become fatigued.

Blood tests may confirm the presence of the antibody to the acetylcholine receptor, though up to a quarter of MG patients will not have detectable levels. A chest x ray or chest computed tomography scan (CT scan) may be performed to look for thymoma.


While there is no cure for myasthenia gravis, there are a number of treatments that effectively control symptoms in most people.

Edrophonium (Tensilon) blocks the action of acetylcholinesterase, prolonging the effect of acetylcholine and increasing strength. An injection of edrophonium rapidly leads to a marked improvement in most people with MG. An alternate drug, neostigmine, may also be used.

Pyridostigmine (Mestinon) is usually the first drug tried. Like edrophonium, pyridostigmine blocks acetylcholinesterase. It is longer-acting, taken by mouth, and well-tolerated. Loss of responsiveness and disease progression combine to eventually make pyridostigmine ineffective in tolerable doses in many patients.

Thymectomy, or removal of the thymus gland, has increasingly become standard treatment for MG. Up to 85% of people with MG improve after thymectomy, with complete remission eventually seen in about 30%. The improvement may take months or even several years to fully develop. Thymectomy is not usually recommended for children with MG, since the thymus continues to play an important immune role throughout childhood.

Immune-suppressing drugs are used to treat MG if response to pyridostigmine and thymectomy are not adequate. Drugs include corticosteroids such as prednisone, and the non-steroids azathioprine (Imuran) and cyclosporine (Sandimmune).

Plasma exchange may be performed to treat myasthenic crisis or to improve very weak patients before thymectomy. In this procedure, blood plasma is removed and replaced with purified plasma free of autoantibodies. It can produce a temporary improvement in symptoms, but is too expensive for long-term treatment. Another blood treatment, intravenous immunoglobulin therapy, is also used for myasthenic crisis. In this procedure, large quantities of purified immune proteins (immunoglobulins) are injected. For unknown reasons, this leads to symptomatic improvement in up to 85% of patients. It is also too expensive for long-term treatment.

People with weakness of the bulbar muscles may need to eat softer foods that are easier to chew and swallow. In more severe cases, it may be necessary to obtain nutrition through a feeding tube placed into the stomach (gastrostomy tube).


Most people with MG can be treated successfully enough to prevent their condition from becoming debilitating. In some cases, however, symptoms may worsen even with vigorous treatment, leading to generalized weakness and disability. MG rarely causes early death except from myasthenic crisis.


There is no known way to prevent myasthenia gravis. Thymectomy improves symptoms significantly in many patients, and relieves them entirely in some. Avoiding heat can help minimize symptoms.

Some drugs should be avoided by people with MG because they interfere with normal neuromuscular function.

Drugs to be avoided or used with caution include:

  • Many types of antibiotics, including erythromycin, streptomycin, and ampicillin
  • Some cardiovascular drugs, including Verapamil, betaxolol, and propranolol
  • Some drugs used in psychiatric conditions, including chlorpromazine, clozapine, and lithium.

Many other drugs may worsen symptoms as well, so patients should check with the doctor who treats their MG before taking any new drugs.

A Medic-Alert card or bracelet provides an important source of information to emergency providers about the special situation of a person with MG. They are available from health care providers.

Key Terms

An immune protein normally used by the body for combating infection and which is made by B cells.
An antibody that reacts against part of the self.
Autoimmune disease
A disease caused by a reaction of the body's immune system.
Bulbar muscles
Muscles that control chewing, swallowing, and speaking.
Neuromuscular junction
The site at which nerve impulses are transmitted to muscles.
Pyridostigmine bromide (Mestinon)
An anticholinesterase drug used in treating myasthenia gravis.
Tensilon test
A test for diagnosing myasthenia gravis. Tensilon is injected into a vein and, if the person has MG, their muscle strength will improve for about five minutes.
Thymus gland
A small gland located just above the heart, involved in immune system development.

Further Reading

For Your Information


  • Swash, Michael and Martin Schwarz. Neuromuscular Diseases: A Practical Approach to Diagnosis and Management. Springer, 1997.


  • Drachman, D.B. "Myasthenia Gravis." New England Journal of Medicine, 330 (1994): 1797-1810.
  • Robinson, Richard. "The Body At War with Itself." Quest, 4 (3)(1997): 20-24.


  • Muscular Dystrophy Association. 3300 East Sunrise Drive, Tucson, AZ 85718. (520) 529-2000 or (800) 572-1717.
  • Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America. 222 S. Riverside Plaza, Suite 1540, Chicago, IL 60606. (800) 541-5454.

Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Gale Research, 1999.

Return to Myasthenia gravis
Home Contact Resources Exchange Links ebay