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Dyskinesia vs. Dystonia: Understanding the Difference

Medically reviewed by Joseph V. Campellone, M.D.
Written by Emily Wagner, M.S.
Updated on May 2, 2022

What Are Dyskinesia and Dystonia? | Causes | Management | Get Support

  • Dyskinesia and dystonia are common motor symptoms that may develop in people with Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders.
  • Dyskinesia is a side effect of levodopa, a medication used to treat Parkinson’s. Dystonia can be caused by medication, or it may be a symptom of the disease itself.
  • Dyskinesia and dystonia can be treated similarly through deep brain stimulation or modifications to medication.

Parkinson’s medications like levodopa can cause motor symptoms known as dyskinesia. Another set of motor symptoms, dystonia, can also develop as a side effect of Parkinson’s medications, or as a direct symptom of Parkinson’s or another movement disorder.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder characterized by a lack of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, responsible for controlling muscle movements. When dopamine levels are low, signaling is disrupted, leading to the development of movement disorders. Dopaminergic treatments can increase dopamine levels or mimic the chemical to improve symptoms.

Parkinson’s disease and other forms of parkinsonism are characterized by abnormal movements, bradykinesia (slow movement), and myoclonus (brief, sudden involuntary muscle twitching or jerking).

What Are Dyskinesia and Dystonia?

Movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease are associated with the symptoms of dyskinesia and dystonia.

Dyskinesia

Dyskinesia is a set of motor symptoms that affects some people with Parkinson’s disease who use levodopa. These symptoms include jerky, involuntary movements of the face, arms, legs, or trunk. According to findings published in the Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology, women and individuals diagnosed with Parkinson’s before the age of 60 are more likely to develop dyskinesia. Dyskinesia is a side effect of some medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease.

Read more about dyskinesia and its impact on MyParkinsonsTeam members.

Dystonia

Dystonia is another disorder that can cause excessive, involuntary muscle contractions that are repetitive and patterned. However, the main difference between dyskinesia and dystonia is that dystonia can be a symptom of Parkinson’s disease itself. It can affect many parts of the body, including the face, jaw, neck, eyelids, vocal cords, hands, arms, legs, and feet.

Common symptoms of dystonia include:

  • Body parts flexing or twisting abnormally
  • Repetitive and patterned body movements, which can appear to be tremors
  • Movement on one side of the body that causes dystonic movements on the opposite side

What Causes Dyskinesia and Dystonia?

Dyskinesia is a common side effect of the Parkinson’s drug levodopa. This drug is used to help increase the level of dopamine in the brain, alleviating symptoms of the disease. However, levodopa is taken intermittently throughout the day, causing dopamine levels to rise and fall over time. These fluctuations are thought to be the cause of dyskinesia. There are two types of dyskinesia:

  • Peak-dose dyskinesia, which occurs when the level of levodopa is at its highest
  • Diphasic dyskinesia, which occurs when levels of levodopa are rising or falling

While dystonia can be a symptom of Parkinson’s disease itself, it can also be caused by levodopa treatment, similar to dyskinesia. Dystonia symptoms occur when there is a decrease in brain dopamine levels, which can occur before medication is taken in the mornings or as it is wearing off during the day. This “off” and “on” dystonia can be addressed by taking an extended-release form of levodopa or by increasing the number of doses taken per day.

Dystonic dyskinesia can occur when the movements caused by levodopa are more sustained and twisting than in typical dyskinesia. When this occurs, it is important to determine the cause — whether the movement occurs at peak-dose levels of dopamine or it is “off” and “on” dystonia.

Learn more about dopamine and Parkinson’s disease.

Other Causes of Dyskinesia and Dystonia

There are many types of dystonia unrelated to Parkinson’s disease. Some forms of dystonia occur with no known cause. Some causes of dystonia are hereditary, while brain injury (from trauma or stroke) can also cause dystonia.

Huntington’s disease is a rare, genetic condition in which nerve cells in the brain degenerate over time. This disease causes movement disorders similar to Parkinson’s, including chorea and dystonia.

Multiple system atrophy (MSA) and progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) are other rare, degenerative disorders that affect muscle movements. Dyskinesia can occur when people with MSA or PSP are treated with levodopa, and untreated MSA or PSP can lead to the development of dystonia.

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How To Manage Dyskinesia

Your neurologist may suggest adding a new medication, switching the form of levodopa you take, or even having a surgical implant to help you manage dyskinesia.

Add-On Medications

Dopamine receptor agonists are another type of drug used to treat Parkinson’s disease. These function by mimicking the action of dopamine and interacting with neurons in the brain to relieve symptoms. Dopamine receptor agonists can be used alone or added to levodopa to help control dyskinesia. Examples of these drugs include:

Amantadine (Gocovri) is another drug that can reduce dyskinesia and help Parkinson’s symptoms. It works by increasing the amount of dopamine in the brain, which alleviates movement symptoms associated with the disease.

Modifying Levodopa

Another way to combat dyskinesia is to lower the dose of levodopa or change the time of day in which it is taken. There is also an extended-release form of levodopa available, which steadily releases the drug over a longer period of time. This helps prevent peak-dose or diphasic dyskinesia.

Deep Brain Stimulation

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is a surgical procedure used to help control motor symptoms and dyskinesia caused by taking levodopa. During one surgery, thin electrodes are inserted into areas of the brain responsible for controlling movement. A small impulse generator is implanted during another surgery later. Once the DBS system is in place, the electrodes send tiny electrical pulses to these brain areas to stimulate them. DBS helps the brain maintain normal movement activity while lowering the dose of levodopa required to alleviate symptoms.

How To Manage Dystonia

Dystonia can be treated in many of the same ways as dyskinesia, such as with dopaminergic medications and DBS. However, there are other ways to manage this condition, including botulinum toxin (Botox), physical therapy to work the dystonic muscles, or anticholinergic medications.

Botulinum toxin is most well known for its cosmetic uses, such as decreasing wrinkles. However, it can also be used to manage dystonia. This toxin comes from the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. These bacteria interfere with the chemical acetylcholine, used by nerve endings in muscles to send messages. This interruption of communication can cause muscles to weaken, which in turn can alleviate certain symptoms of Parkinson’s.

Similar to botulinum toxin, anticholinergic medications can be used to interfere with acetylcholine signaling between the nerves and muscles. These include trihexyphenidyl and benztropine mesylate (Cogentin).

Connect With Others Who Understand

MyParkinsonsTeam is the social network for people with Parkinson’s disease and their loved ones. On MyParkinsonsTeam, more than 90,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with Parkinson’s disease.

Are you living with Parkinson’s disease? Have you experienced dyskinesia or dystonia? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Updated on May 2, 2022
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Joseph V. Campellone, M.D. is board-certified in neurology, neuromuscular disease, and electrodiagnostic medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Emily Wagner, M.S. holds a Master of Science in biomedical sciences with a focus in pharmacology. She is passionate about immunology, cancer biology, and molecular biology. Learn more about her here.

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