Myasthenia gravis is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s own proteins as foreign antigens. Specifically, the immune system targets and interferes with acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that transmits messages between the nerves and muscles. This results in moderate to severe muscle weakens that can occur throughout the body.
The muscle weakness is usually first seen in the eye. Often, other effects on the face – such as eye movement, facial expression, and swallowing – then become visible as well. A person with myasthenia gravis may have double vision or impaired speech. The disease can affect any voluntary muscle, including any limb and the lungs.
Myasthenia gravis can be medicated by either treating the symptom or trying to suppress the autoimmune disease. The symptom can be treated by increasing muscle strength through medication. To suppress the disease, doctors can prescribe immunosuppressant drugs, which would discourage the immune system from attacking acetylcholine. However, because immunosuppressant drugs can have dangerous side effects, they are usually only recommended for a short period of time and when found to be extremely necessary. Anticholinesterase agents, on the other hand, both treat the weakened muscles and suppress the immune system. A patient could also decide to have his thymus gland removed, a procedure that is often effective – but it can sometimes take years for the effects to be felt.
Because myasthenia gravis can restrict vitally important muscles, such as the lungs, patients can have life-threatening episodes. In these situations, immediate and professional medical help is critical.