By Qineng Tan, L.Ac., Ph.D. & Xiaomei Cai, L.Ac., Ph.D.
Muscle weakness around the eyes, drooping eyelids (ptosis), double vision, blurred vision (diplopia), impaired speech? These are potential signs of Myasthenia Gravis, an autoimmune disorder that affects the voluntary neuromuscular system, especially around the eyes, mouth, and throat, and the limbs. Acupuncture and TCM offer an adjunct treatment for Myasthenia Gravis symptoms.
As with some other autoimmune diseases, Myasthenia Gravis causes antibodies produced by the body’s own immune system to attack healthy cells instead of pathogens. In the case of Myasthenia Gravis, the immune cells attack receptors on certain groups of muscles, which blocks chemicals required to stimulate voluntary muscular contractions.
A person can develop Myasthenia Gravis at any age, but the disorder is twice as prevalent among women between 20 and 40. Myasthenia is a chronic condition that cannot be completely cured. However, the symptoms can often be controlled with medications and/or other types of treatment for myasthenia gravis.
Many people with Myasthenia Gravis are able to improve their muscular strength with the right combination of treatments and maintain their normal activities. Acupuncture and other TCM modalities can be used as an adjunct therapy to improve quality of life and keep functionality strong, helping to control this autoimmune disorder.
What Causes Myasthenia Gravis?
Our voluntary muscular movements rely on the ability of our muscles to receive communications through the nervous system. There are various neurotransmitters that interact with receptors on the muscles and the proteins that make up the chemical connections between nerves and muscles. Some people with Myasthenia Gravis seem to have antibodies that are damaging or destroying these key receptors and/or proteins. Other people with Myasthenia Gravis, however, do not show unusual antibody activity (seronegative myasthenia gravis or antibody-negative myasthenia gravis), but doctors believe they must still be experiencing some form of autoimmune dysfunction affecting the nerves and muscles.
The thymus gland plays a part in immune function and is believed to play a role in the production of these antibodies that block receptors. Some people with Myasthenia Gravis had an enlarged thymus gland, or a tumor or tumors on the thymus gland.
In rare cases, a baby may be born with a form of congenital Myasthenia gravis; this is called congenital myasthenic syndrome.
Symptoms of Myasthenia Gravis
More than half of people who end up discovering that they have Myasthenia Gravis first present with eye problems, such as double vision, blurry vision, or droopy eyelids. But the signs can also show up in the throat, with trouble swallowing, or in the mouth area, with trouble forming words, chewing food, or even breathing.
Signs of myasthenia gravis include:
- Weakness of the muscles around the eyes (ocular myasthenia)
- Drooping eyelids (ptosis)
- Double vision or blurred vision (diplopia)
- Speech problems, impaired speech (dysarthria), trouble pronouncing words
- Shortness of breath
- Change in facial expressions
- Muscular weakness in the neck, arms, hands, or legs
- Difficulty holding up the head, neck problems
- Fatigue, especially muscle fatigue
Symptoms of Myasthenia Gravis often seem to abate in the early part of the day, after a night’s rest, and then worse as the day goes on, and a person has been more active. In other words, the muscle weakness tends to improve with rest, and get worse with exertion.
Like some other autoimmune disorders, Myasthenia Gravis symptoms can come and go, sometimes flaring up and at other times going into remission. Some issues that can exacerbate symptoms might be:
- Infection or illness
- Fatigue, overwork, not enough sleep
- Menstrual period
- Certain medications, including some antibiotics, anesthetics, or beta blockers
The most serious form of Myasthenia Gravis occurs if the muscles that control the breathing apparatus become so weak and fatigued that a person cannot breathe; this is a medical emergency called a “myasthenia crisis,” and requires immediate medical intervention.
Myasthenia Gravis Treatment
It can be a difficult process being definitely diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis. Problems with balance, coordination, reflexes, and muscle strength may show up in a neurological exam, but they do not prove definitively what is going on. When the eyelids are drooping, doctors will often perform a test where they ice the area for two minutes to see if this improves the problem. A blood test may show a higher than normal level of antibodies of the type that affect the muscle receptors or proteins. A CT or MRI may reveal a tumor on the thymus.
Other conditions that may appear similar to Myasthenia Gravis include ALS and botulism.
Doctors will prescribe different medications to treat Myasthenia Gravis, either alone, or in combination, depending on the severity and type of symptoms. Corticosteroids and immunosuppressants can reduce the production of antibodies. Plasmapheresis can remove some of the overload of antibodies already in the system. Intravenous immunoglobulin introduces healthy antibodies that can cancel out the malfunctioning ones. Cholinesterase inhibitors can help boost the communication between the nervous system and the muscles. Unfortunately, all of these medications can come with side effects.
Surgical removal of the thymus gland if there is a tumor, or even in some cases when there is no tumor but the gland is believed to be a contributing factor, may help relieve the condition.
Acupuncture and TCM, when used as an adjunct, can help alleviate symptoms of the disorder itself, and help mitigate the side effects of other treatments.
Can TCM Herbs and Acupuncture Help Myasthenia Gravis?
Myasthenia Gravis causes miscommunications between the nervous system and the muscles. Acupuncture treatment can be beneficial for many different types of neurological, musculoskeletal, and autoimmune disorders because it has a positive impact on the communications between the various systems of the body.
TCM treatment with an experienced acupuncturist can be very helpful for patients with Myasthenia Gravis, as we take all aspects of your health into consideration while also focusing on the symptoms related specifically to this autoimmune condition. For example, acupuncture can help with sleep, feelings of anxiety and depression, problems with appetite and digestion, as well as with the muscular weakness associated with Myasthenia Gravis.
One study tested the effects of acupuncture treatment on ocular myasthenia, or eye-related symptoms. Over 90% of the patients treated experience significant improvement in their symptoms.
Chinese herb preparations used in addition to Western conventional medicines can help patients with Myasthenia Gravis. A study compared two groups of patients: one treated with corticosteroids (Prednisone), and one treated with both Prednisone and Chinese herbs. After three months, the patients given herbs showed more improvement, and were able to reduce the amount of corticosteroids needed.
A review of several studies done in China of acupuncture treatment used as complementary treatment for Myasthenia Gravis concluded that patients who had acupuncture reported better clinical outcomes than people who only received the standard pharmaceutical treatments.
While it may be challenging, it is good to include physical activity and even muscular strength training, as it is possible for patients to help overcome muscle weakness with regular exercise. Your TCM practitioner can help you follow an appropriate nutrition and movement program.
Acupuncture Near Me for Myasthenia Gravis in West Los Angeles
TCM is well-suited to help patients who suffer from both autoimmune disorders and neurological and muscular problems of all kinds because it works on multiple levels to help quiet pain signals while boosting communication signals between the different systems of the body. Dr. Tan and Dr. Cai have over 30 years of experience helping people recover from chronic illnesses like Myasthenia Gravis.
*This article is for education from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine only. The education provided by this article is not approved by FDA to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure human diseases. It should not stop you from consulting with your physician for your medical conditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Qi, which is an invisible force that usually cannot be observed by modern science. Because science focuses on testing ideas about the natural world with evidence obtained through observation, these aspects of acupuncture can’t be studied by science. Therefore acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often not supported by double-blind, randomized trials, and they are considered alternative medicine therapies in the United States.