What Are the Symptoms of Stiff Person Syndrome?

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Stiff Person Syndrome (SPS) is a rare autoimmune neurological condition that has puzzled the medical community for years. Affecting a small percentage of the population, SPS leads to a variety of symptoms, primarily muscle stiffness and spasms, which cause significant discomfort and challenges.

In this article, we’ll dive into what SPS is, its symptoms, causes, how it’s diagnosed, and treatment options, giving you an in depth understanding of this highly complex condition.

Remember, be sure to speak with a qualified medical professional if you are experiencing any unusual health issues that are causing you concern.

What Is Stiff Person Syndrome?

Stiff Person Syndrome is characterized by increased muscle stiffness and spasms, predominantly affecting the trunk, spinal muscles, and limbs. Symptoms of SPS can vary from mild to debilitating and typically progress over time, often leading to severe physical and psychological challenges, as well as impacting the mobility and the quality of life of those affected.

Stiff Person Syndrome is a rare condition that affects only a few people per million. Anyone can develop Stiff Person Syndrome, but most people begin experiencing the symptoms of SPS between the ages of 30 and 60

What Are the Symptoms of Stiff Person Syndrome?

The initial symptoms of Stiff Person Syndrome are diverse, but they can all significantly impact a person’s well-being. These symptoms typically evolve over time, and they can vary widely among individuals. The symptoms of SPS include:

Stiffness and Rigidity

It primarily affects muscles, especially those in the spine and limbs. This stiffness can cause a lot of pain and make it hard for people to move around easily. 

Muscle Spasms

Muscle spasms particularly in the trunk and limbs can be painful and unexpected leading to difficulties in walking from continuous muscle activity.

Difficulty Walking

A person with SPS might find it hard to bend over, affecting their ability to dress and causing them to have a stiff-legged walking pattern. These symptoms often lead to a need for physical therapy to manage and improve movement, posture, and gait, despite ongoing issues with stiffness and spasms.

Heightened Sensitivity

Patients with SPS have an increased sensitivity to external stimuli, like touch and sounds, making their muscle spasms worse when they are surprised or touched unexpectedly. This heightened sensitivity, along with muscle stiffness and spasms significantly affects patients’ quality of life and may sometimes result in falls.

Anxiety and Phobias

The unpredictable nature of SPS can significantly impact a person’s daily life and mobility. Because of these physical symptoms, individuals with SPS might also experience mental health challenges, such as task-specific phobias and heightened anxiety, especially when faced with situations that could trigger their symptoms. 

It’s important to stress that these symptoms can vary significantly from person to person, and they may be mistakenly linked to other conditions initially. This symptom variability, combined with the rarity of the syndrome, often leads to delays in diagnosis and treatment.

Read More: Chronic Pain Makes You Think Differently

What Causes Stiff Person Syndrome?

The exact cause of SPS is unknown, but researchers believe it is an autoimmune disorder where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissues, particularly within the central nervous system. This misguided immune response disrupts normal communication between the nervous system and muscles, leading to the characteristic stiffness and spasms associated with SPS​​​.

Researchers suspect the immune system’s reaction is to a surplus of unique antibodies in the blood called anti-GAD65 antibodies. These antibodies, found in excess in most people with SPS, block the glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD) enzyme, which is important to the production of the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter. Without the correct amount of GABA, nerve cells can misfire, leading to the muscle stiffness and spasms characteristic of SPS.

Women are about twice as likely to develop SPS than men, and the condition is often associated with other autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes. Additionally, people with cancer are at greater risk, especially those with breast cancer, lung cancer, and lymphoma.

Despite its severity, SPS is often underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed due to its rarity and the broad range of its symptoms, which can resemble those of other neurological and muscular disorders. That’s why understanding the signs of Stiff Person Syndrome is crucial for early diagnosis and effective symptom management, which can greatly improve outcomes and quality of life.

Read More: What Causes Muscle Twitches, According to Science

How Is Stiff Person Syndrome Diagnosed?

(Credit: Triff/Shutterstock)

Diagnosing SPS is challenging due to its rarity and the similarity of its symptoms to other conditions, such as multiple sclerosis. In addition to considering the symptoms a patient exhibits, a doctor might help confirm an SPS diagnosis using the following tests: 

Blood Tests

Blood tests can be used to check for the presence of specific antibodies, such as anti-GAD65, which is typically elevated in 60-80% of SPS patients​.

Advanced Imaging

MRI, PET, and CT scans of the brain, spine, nerves, and other areas of the body may be used to help rule out other possible conditions, including multiple sclerosis.

Electromyography (EMG)

This test evaluates involuntary nerve and muscle activity, helping medical professionals rule out other possible muscle disorders​​.

Lumbar Puncture

A doctor may order a lumbar puncture to look for evidence of inflammation or infection and analyze cerebrospinal fluid, seeking markers such as anti-GAD65.

Diagnosing Stiff Person Syndrome requires a multi-faceted approach that includes detailed physical examinations and a variety of tests to rule out other conditions and confirm the presence of characteristic antibodies and symptoms.

Read More: What Do Your Blood Test Results Mean?

Can Stiff Person Syndrome Kill You?

While Stiff Person Syndrome is not directly fatal, its complications can be life-threatening. Due to reduced mobility, people with SPS may experience more blood clots or infected wounds. In rare cases, severe muscle spasms in chest muscles can lead to respiratory failure. SPS also increases the risk for serious injuries due to falls.

Although there is no cure for SPS, early detection and an effective treatment plan can help ease symptoms, slow disease progression, and improve quality of life.

Stiff Person Syndrome is a complex and challenging condition – both to diagnose and to manage. However, although SPS is considered a chronic condition, with early detection and appropriate management, many people diagnosed with SPS can lead relatively normal lives.

Read More: Autoimmune Diseases Are on the Rise, Along With More Promising Preventative Measures

Article Sources

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