Rare Movement Disorder Pauses Dion’s Concert Schedule

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Grammy-winning singer Celine Dion has paused her performance schedule. She’s been diagnosed with a rare, progressive neurological disease that causes spasms, which, she says, “affect every aspect of my daily life, sometimes causing difficulties when I walk and not allowing me to use my vocal cords to sing the way I’m used to.”

Her condition, stiff-person syndrome, is commonly confused with other movement disorders, like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.  

“It’s incredibly rare,” Fadi Tayim, PhD, director of the Brain Mapping Center of the Clinical Neuroscience Institute, told Premier Health Now. “I’ve never met a patient who has been diagnosed with it.”

Stiff-person syndrome is an autoimmune disorder that affects the nervous system, specifically the brain and spinal cord.

‘Disordered Movement’

“It’s the body’s own immune system attacking itself because it mistakenly identifies certain neurons or cellular signals as foreign,” Dr. Tayim says. This results in “an excessive barrage of signals that go from the brain, through the spinal column, to the muscles. So instead of having fluid movement, there’s a disordered type of movement.”

Symptoms, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, may include:

  • Extreme muscle stiffness
  • Painful muscle spasms in the torso, arms, and legs. In some cases, spasms can be forceful enough to fracture bones.
  • Severely impaired mobility
  • Frequent falls

Stiff-person syndrome has “some overlap” in symptoms with other movement disorders, Dr. Tayim says. And it’s often mistaken for other diseases such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, psychosomatic illness, anxiety, or phobia.

“If a patient presents with symptoms like this, we would have them go through the Clinical Neuroscience Institute’s Movement Disorders Center” to diagnose the condition.

There is no cure for stiff-person syndrome, but injections of Botox and IV immunoglobulin can reduce or eliminate the stiffness. People with the syndrome, though, are more sensitive to noise, touch, and emotional distress, which can set off relapses of muscle spasms.

And the disease affects people differently. For some, symptoms plateau, while for others symptoms worsen or lessen. And the severity of the disease varies from one person to the next. “It’s too early to know the trajectory of Celine Dion’s disease,” Dr. Tayim says.

“For someone concerned they may have this condition or some kind of movement disorder, they should see their primary care doctor, who, if appropriate, will refer them to a neurologist – and hopefully a movement disorder specialist like we have at Premier, to begin the process of understanding what’s going on.”

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