What Does Dystonia Feel Like?

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Dystonia is a neurological movement disorder characterized by uncontrollable, involuntary muscle spasms and contractions, causing repetitive movements, twitching, twisting, and/or abnormal postures.

Muscle contractions can be sustained or intermittent and sometimes include a tremor. Dystonia can affect any part of the body, causing varying degrees of disability and pain from mild to severe.

Even with this description, unless you live with dystonia it is very hard to understand how it physically feels, let alone the mental and emotional challenges that come with it. For some people, dystonia permeates every single part of their lives, demanding so much of their attention that it can be the only thing they think about. Their symptoms never stop long enough for them to get a break. The pain for many is excruciating.

This chronic lifestyle is very hard to comprehend for a lot of people. It certainly was for me until I developed dystonia over 15 years ago. Prior to dystonia, life was easy. I never had to carefully consider everything I did for fear it would throw my body into more pain and trauma than it already was. I lived freely in a body that worked great, doing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted; something I took for granted, which I now see so many able-bodied people doing all the time.

When dystonia hit, my perspective on this changed in an instant as I longed for that life I once had and never fully appreciated. Dystonia has challenged me unlike anything ever before. You can see in my photos how dystonia can affect my body. It turned my world upside down and has taken me many years to find my bearings.

There are so many people in our lives who don’t understand the devastation dystonia brings, so I hope this video and article provide a new perspective. Perhaps by learning what dystonia feels like, people can be more empathetic and we can enjoy happier, healthier relationships. While this video does not describe all the many different ways dystonia feels, I hope it is a good representation of what the vast majority experiences.

I find that the best way to describe dystonia is to share an example of something similar to what other people have experienced. At my worst, I used to say it felt like someone constantly had a power drill in my skull, neck, shoulders, and back, and a rope tied around my head yanking it towards my right shoulder. Of course I don’t know anyone who has experienced this, so it is not relatable and thus, probably not the best explanation. I would get empathy, but it was accompanied by blank stares.

Similarly, I often hear people say it feels like the affected body part(s) is in a vice, they are being squeezed by a snake, their head feels like it is being pulled off or is the weight of a bowling ball, and/or their muscles pull, turn, and twist uncontrollably. While most of us with dystonia understand what all of this is like because we experience it, it makes little sense to someone without dystonia. In order for them to better understand, we must use specific, tangible things they have also experienced so they can relate. Or, be creative and have them do things that mimic what you feel. Please see the video for some ideas.

As you can see from this video, dystonia is not a fun disorder to live with by any stretch of the imagination. Take one of the examples I give about a charley horse. Imagine what your life would be like if you had a charley horse that never went away. It is almost unfathomable, but this is what dystonia feels like for so many of us. Is it any wonder some of us may not be the same person we were before dystonia entered our lives?

Chronic pain can change everything, which has forced us to adopt coping mechanisms that don’t necessarily reflect our real level of discomfort.

When we say we are in pain, it is often worse than usual; much of the time we are just coping and trying to sound happy and look normal. The gal in the picture below is evidence of this. She was in major pain in this picture, but her smile tells a different story. Also take note of how she is holding her head; a gesture that is very familiar to those of us with cervical dystonia.

Staci holding neck

Sometimes we hear others say, “You just need to push yourself more.” It may be hard to read how we feel on our face or in our body language, but we push ourselves all the time; sometimes too much and we pay for it later with worse symptoms. Finding balance is one of our greatest challenges. Some days we do nothing but push just to get through the day. Sometimes it took everything I had in me to merely get out of bed to make breakfast.

This is the reality of dystonia for many people, which can be a difficult concept to grasp. It is even difficult for those of us living with dystonia to sometimes understand. This video and article should provide more clarity. Too many people with dystonia do not get the support they need because those close to them simply do not understand the gravity of the situation, including our doctors. I hope this helps in that regard.

Tom Seaman Headshot (2)About the Author: Tom Seaman is a dystonia awareness advocate and certified professional life coach in the area of health and wellness. He is also the author of the book, Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey (2015). To learn more about Tom and get a copy of his book, visit www.diagnosisdystonia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dystoniabook1


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