August is Spinal Muscular Atrophy Awareness Month.
If you’re one of the many who have never heard of this particular disease, however, rest assured you are not alone. In fact, the Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) Foundation calls spinal muscular atrophy “one of the most common rare diseases” that exists in the U.S. today.
Though it afflicts somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 Americans at any given time, the SMA Foundation reports that one in every 40 to 50 people are actually carriers of the gene responsible for this condition. But what exactly is spinal muscular atrophy?
Spinal muscular atrophy defined
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) “is one of several hereditary diseases that progressively destroy lower motor neurons—nerve cells in the brain stem and spinal cord.” These motor neurons and nerve cells are at least partially responsible for actions that many of us engage in daily without a second thought, including those related to speaking, breathing, swallowing and walking.
SMA ultimately affects the function of the muscles responsible for these movements by disrupting communication with their corresponding motor neurons. This causes the muscles to experience symptoms such as uncontrollable twitching and excessive stiffness.
Additionally, as this disease progresses over time, it’s not uncommon for the individual diagnosed with this condition to lose complete control of his or her ability to control these actions, making it more difficult to sustain these vital functions.
SMA types and causes
The NINDS reports that SMA is caused by a defective SMN1 gene, whereby the body is not able to make enough protein for motor neurons to survive healthfully. This causes them to degenerate and weaken, the effects of which are usually most noticeable in the outer extremities (arms, legs, hands and feet).
Though there are a few different types of SMA, the NINDS states that children with this condition are diagnosed with one of three types:
- SMA type I: This type of SMA, also called Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, is apparent by 6 months of age with symptoms that include severely reduced muscle tone, limited limb movement, difficulties swallowing and breathing and, sometimes, the development of scoliosis or other skeletal issues. Though survival rates are improving, most children diagnosed with SMA type I don’t survive to the age of 2 because of respiratory failure.
- SMA type II: This intermediate form of SMA begins to appear between 6 and 18 months of age and generally results in the child being unable to stand or walk. Respiratory infections are still a major concern, but children with SMA type II can survive long enough to become adolescents or young adults.
- SMA type III: The third type of SMA is also known as Kugelberg-Welander disease and shows up between the ages of 2 and 17. Symptoms include abnormal gait, difficulties with lower body movements such as running or getting out of a chair, and slight tremors in the hands. With proper care, an individual with SMA type III can have a long, normal life.
SMA can also appear in adulthood, according to Cure SMA, with symptoms not typically becoming present until after the age of 35. Adult-onset SMA is even more rare, according to Cure SMA, and like SMA type III, generally results in the patient having a normal life expectancy.
Sadly, there is currently no cure for SMA, so individuals with this condition can only manage its symptoms and try to prevent SMA-related complications. That being said, chiropractic can sometimes help.
Chiropractic’s role in spinal muscular atrophy treatment
For instance, a case study published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine involved a 35-year-old male with SMA type III and temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMJ. As a result of his physical conditions, his ability to open his mouth was restricted and he reported a median level of pain (5 on a scale of 1 to 10).
During the study, the patient engaged in chiropractic care which authors note included “TMJ mobilization, myofascial therapy, trigger point therapy, and light spinal mobilizations of the upper cervical vertebrae.” After receiving these treatments, the patient was reanalyzed and it was discovered that he was able to open his mouth wider and the pain and tenderness in his jaw area had completely resolved.
If a spinal misalignment or deformity exists as a result of SMA, such as when scoliosis is present, chiropractic can potentially help with that too, as research has found that spinal adjustments can help improve pain, disability, and Cobb angle. Additionally, these improvements have been recorded for as long as 24 months post-treatment.
Even though SMA has no cure, there are treatments that can help patients better manage their symptoms. Chiropractic is one to consider, providing an all-natural remedy for this known, yet rare condition.