Primary Torsion Dystonia

Updated: Dec 08, 2014
  • Author: Vijaya K Patil, MD; Chief Editor: Selim R Benbadis, MD  more...
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Dystonia is a syndrome of sustained muscle contractions, usually producing twisting and repetitive movements or abnormal postures. [1]

In 1908, Schwalbe first described primary, or idiopathic, torsion dystonia in a Jewish family, and in 1911, Oppenheim termed this dystonia musculorum deformans (DMD). [2] Initially believed to be a manifestation of hysteria, idiopathic torsion dystonia gradually became established as a neurologic entity with a genetic basis. DMD and Oppenheim disease are terms now used for childhood- and adolescent-onset dystonia due to the DYT1 gene.

Advances in the area of dystonia genetics have identified new genetic loci and increased understanding of phenotypic spectrum. Dystonia can be either primary or secondary. Primary torsion dystonia (PTD), historically called DMD, is dystonia in isolation without brain degeneration and without an acquired cause. Secondary dystonia includes a heterogenous group of etiologies including inherited (without and with brain degeneration) and acquired neurologic disorders. The phenotypic spectrum associated with PTD is broad ranging, from early onset generalized to adult-onset focal dystonia. [3, 4]

Primary torsion dystonia may be focal, segmental, multifocal, or generalized, depending on which anatomic sites are involved (see Table 1).

Table 1. Anatomic Distribution of Primary Torsion Dystonia (Open Table in a new window)

Focal Body Site
Segmental two or more contiguous body regions
Multifocal two or more noncontiguous body regions
Generalized involving atleast one leg, the trunk and another body region
Hemidystonia involving one side of the body




Although secondary forms of dystonia are frequently associated with structural lesions of the basal ganglia and thalamus, no consistent histologic or biochemical findings are noted in primary torsion dystonia. However, perinuclear inclusion bodies have been described in the midbrain reticular formation and in the periaqueductal gray matter in 4 patients in whom DYT1 was clinically documented and genetically confirmed. [5]

No discernible abnormalities are seen on current structural neuroimaging studies. Abnormal brain networks have been described in different functional imaging studies; substantial evidence implicates dysfunction in dopaminergic pathways in the pathophysiology of primary torsion dystonia. [6, 7]

Besides motor control difficulties, defective sensory processing and sensory abnormalities are described. [8, 9]

Current models of basal ganglia circuitry have been adapted and suggest dysfunction at the basal ganglia level. [10] These aberrations involve the direct and indirect pathways and result in impaired inhibition at the cortical level with consequent loss of normal inhibitory reflexes at the level of the brainstem and spinal levels.

See the image below for a diagram of the basal ganglia circuitry dysfunction in dystonia.

Idiopathic torsion dystonia. Major nuclear complex Idiopathic torsion dystonia. Major nuclear complex of the basal ganglia is the striatum, which is composed of the caudate and putamen. The striatum receives glutamatergic input from the cerebral cortex and dopaminergic input from the substantia nigra pars compacta (SNc). Two types of spiny projection neurons receive cortical and nigral inputs: those that project directly and those that project indirectly to the internal segment of the globus pallidus (GPI), which is the major output site of the basal ganglia. Complementary action of both of these pathways regulates the overall function of the GPI. The GPI, which, in turn, provides tonic inhibitory (ie, gamma-aminobutyric acid [GABA]–ergic) discharges downstream into the thalamic nuclei that project to the frontal cortical and other CNS areas. Direct pathway (D1) inhibits the substantia nigra pars reticulata (SNr) and the GPI, which are the major output sites, resulting in a net disinhibition and facilitation of thalamocortical circuits. Indirect pathway (D2), through serial connections with the globus pallidus pars externa (GPe) and the subthalamic nucleus (STN), is excitatory to the GPI, resulting in further inhibitory action on thalamocortical pathways. In this model, the mean discharge rate of the GPI is the key factor that determines a hypokinetic or hyperkinetic movement disorder. Increased inhibitory influences of the GPI on the thalamocortical circuitry result in hypokinetic disorders, such as Parkinson disease, whereas decreased GPI activity results in hyperkinetic disorders, such as hemiballismus. VL = ventrolateral thalamus.



United States

The relative frequencies of primary and secondary forms of dystonia are not known.

The prevalence of primary torsion dystonia is difficult to estimate because of the variation in its expression and the tendency for mild cases to go undiagnosed. In Rochester, Minnesota, the prevalence was calculated to be approximately 34 per million persons for generalized dystonia and 295 per million persons for all focal dystonia from a study conducted in 1980s. [11] Late-onset focal primary dystonia was 10 times more common than early-onset generalized primary torsion dystonia. [11]

Several large studies have shown that early-onset primary torsion dystonia is 5-10 times more common in Ashkenazi Jews than in people who were not Jewish or in Jewish individuals not of Ashkenazi heritage. Subsequent studies have found a wide range in the prevalence of dystonia from 6-7,320 persons per million population. [12, 13]


In a European collaborative study (the Epidemiological Study of Dystonia in Europe [ESDE]), investigators found a crude annual prevalence of 15.2 cases per 100,000 individuals, the majority of whom had focal dystonia at a rate of 11.7 cases per 100,000 individuals. [14]


Childhood- and adolescent-onset primary dystonia is more common in Jews of Eastern European or Ashkenazi ancestry than in other groups.

  • Many cases of early primary torsion dystonia, especially those among non-Jewish populations, are not due to the TOR1A GAG deletion in DYT1. The DYT6 locus was identified by means of linkage analysis in 15 affected members from 2 Swiss Mennonite families. [15]
  • A genome-wide search for primary torsion dystonia in a large family from central Italy in whom 11 members were definitely affected revealed a novel locus, namely, DYT13. [16]


In a large study of 957 cases of primary dystonia from Europe, segmental and focal dystonias had notable female predilections. This finding suggested that patients with focal dystonia should not be treated as a homogeneous group and that sex-linked factors may play a role. [14]