Division of Neurology, Box 3403, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina, 27710, USA
Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases 2007, 2:44 doi:10.1186/1750-1172-2-44Published: 6 November 2007
Myasthenia gravis (MG) is a rare, autoimmune neuromuscular junction disorder. Contemporary prevalence rates approach 1/5,000. MG presents with painless, fluctuating, fatigable weakness involving specific muscle groups. Ocular weakness with asymmetric ptosis and binocular diplopia is the most typical initial presentation, while early or isolated oropharyngeal or limb weakness is less common. The course is variable, and most patients with initial ocular weakness develop bulbar or limb weakness within three years of initial symptom onset. MG results from antibody-mediated, T cell-dependent immunologic attack on the endplate region of the postsynaptic membrane. In patients with fatigable muscle weakness, the diagnosis of MG is supported by: 1. pharmacologic testing with edrophonium chloride that elicits unequivocal improvement in strength; 2. electrophysiologic testing with repetitive nerve stimulation (RNS) studies and/or single-fiber electromyography (SFEMG) that demonstrates a primary postsynaptic neuromuscular junctional disorder; and 3. serologic demonstration of acetylcholine receptor (AChR) or muscle-specific tyrosine kinase (MuSK) antibodies. Differential diagnosis includes congenital myasthenic syndromes, Lambert Eaton syndrome, botulism, organophosphate intoxication, mitochondrial disorders involving progressive external ophthalmoplegia, acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (AIDP), motor neuron disease, and brainstem ischemia. Treatment must be individualized, and may include symptomatic treatment with cholinesterase inhibitors and immune modulation with corticosteroids, azathioprine, cyclosporine, and mycophenolate mofetil. Rapid, temporary improvement may be achieved for myasthenic crises and exacerbations with plasma exchange (PEX) or intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg). Owing to improved diagnostic testing, immunotherapy, and intensive care, the contemporary prognosis is favorable with less than five percent mortality and nearly normal life expectancy.