Dyspnea in dystonia: A functional evaluation

N. Braun, A. Abd, J. Baer, A. Blitzer, C. Stewart, M. Brin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Dystonia consists of action-triggered sustained focal muscle contractions, worsened by effort, and resulting in voice changes, abnormal posturing, and dyspnea. The cause of dyspnea, previously unexplained, is the basis of this report. Methods: Since the maximal efforts required to perform pulmonary function testing (PFT) could worsen the muscular contractions in dystonic patients, we used several tests to identify possible causes of dyspnea. These included spirometry with flow volume loops (FVL), tidal volume breathing, maximum voluntary ventilation (MVV), and inspiratory and expiratory muscle pressures (PImax, PEmax), sitting and supine. We used cycle ergometry with arterial blood gas (ABG) values to detect cardiac/pulmonary limitations and respiratory inductive plethysmography (RIP) to assess chest wall/abdominal movements for synchrony. Dynamic videofluoroscopy (VF) assessed and recorded the action-triggered muscle activity of the upper airways and the diaphragm during quiet breathing, speech, swallowing, and maximal respiratory maneuvers similar to the efforts required during PFT. Results: Twenty-six dystonic patients, 12 women and 14 men, ages 14 to 70 years (mean age, 52.3 years) were evaluated. Their neurologic classification included 22 primary (idiopathic) and 4 secondary (2 postneuroleptic use, 2 posttraumatic). Four patients originally classified as having focal dystonia had dyspnea and were found to have diaphragmatic and/or upper airway dysfunction too. The PFTs showed abnormal FVL and/or tidal volume breathing patterns, with intermittent interruptions of air flow during inspiration or expiration in 20 of 24 patients. The VF was abnormal in 24 of 26 patients: 19 patients had combined upper airway (UA) and diaphragmatic dysfunction (DD); 1 patient had UA dysfunction alone, and 4 patients had DD alone. Except for poor effort and/or dystonic movements, cycle ergometry was normal in 18 of 21 patients. The ABG values and/or pulse oximetry were normal in 19 of 22 patients. Conclusion: Dyspnea in dystonia appears to be due to excessive and/or dysynchronized contractions of the upper airways and/or diaphragm, with usually normal gas exchange. These spasmodic and irregular muscular contractions during speech and daily activities are associated with the sensation of excessive effort to overcome the spasms. Excessive spasms can be triggered during PFT and are best detected on FVL patterns coupled with dynamic VF.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1309-1316
Number of pages8
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1995


  • diaphragm
  • dyspnea
  • dystonia
  • pulmonary function testing
  • upper airways
  • videofluoroscopy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pulmonary and Respiratory Medicine
  • Critical Care and Intensive Care Medicine
  • Cardiology and Cardiovascular Medicine


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