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Facioscapulohumeral Muscular Dystrophy in Children

What is FSHD in children?

Facioscapulohumeral [FA-shee-oh SKA-pyoo-loh HYOO-muh-ruhl] muscular dystrophy (FSHD) is a rare genetic muscle disease that affects the muscles of your child’s face, shoulders, upper arms, and lower legs. These muscles weaken and shrink (atrophy). Symptoms usually appear before 20 years of age. The disease slowly gets worse, causing weakness in other parts of the body. Most children with FSHD remain able to walk.

What causes FSHD in a child?

FSHD is caused by certain gene changes (mutations). Researchers think that the change may activate a gene called DUX4. This gene is normally inactive in most cells in the body. Other genetic factors may also play a role in FSHD.

FSHD affects both boys and girls. Either parent can pass it down to his or her children. This is an autosomal dominant inheritance pattern. A parent with the FSHD has a 1 in 2 chance of passing it on to each of his or her children.

Sometimes a child may have FSHD even though a parent doesn’t have the condition. This may happen because the defect that causes FSHD is found in some of the parent’s sperm or egg cells but not in the rest of the parent’s body cells. In this case, the parent may have an increased risk of passing the defect on to any of his or her other children as well.

In some cases, FSHD results from new (sporadic) mutations instead of through inheritance.

What are the symptoms of FSHD in a child?

Symptoms usually show up during the teenage years. But sometimes FSHD appears in babies. The first things you may notice are weakness in your child’s face and shoulder muscles. FSHD may affect one side of the body more than the other. Common symptoms include:

  • Shoulder blades that stick out from the back (scapular winging)
  • Trouble reaching up with the arms or throwing a ball
  • Difficulty whistling, blowing up a balloon, or using a straw
  • Difficulty turning the corners of the mouth up when smiling
  • Eyes not closing all the way during sleep

How is FSHD diagnosed in a child?

Your child’s doctor will take a health history, asking about recent symptoms, past health conditions, and your family's health history. The doctor will do a physical exam, including the affected muscles. Your child may need tests. These include:

  • Blood tests, for muscle enzymes such as creatine kinase
  • DNA blood tests, to look for the defect
  • Electromyography, to measure the electrical activity of the muscles
  • MRI, to see the pattern of muscle damage
  • Muscle biopsy, to look at the muscle cells or confirm a diagnosis

Your child’s doctor may make a diagnosis based on the exam and some of the above tests or other tests. Your child may first see his or her primary doctor and then be referred to a neurologist. Some neurologists have special training to treat nerve and muscle diseases such as FSHD. Your child may also need care from other providers such as physical therapists.

How is FSHD treated in a child?

There is no cure for the disease. Treatment focuses on supportive treatment to help your child manage the symptoms. Physical therapy is a key part of managing FSHD.

  • Mild, low-intensity exercises. With your child’s physical or occupational therapist to plan a safe exercise program.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines. These may ease muscle inflammation and pain.
  • This can keep the shoulder blade in one spot to help your child use his or her arms.
  • Support devices. These include corsets, back supports, bras, lower-leg braces, and high-top shoes.

What are the complications of FSHD in a child?

The muscle weakness in FSHD tends to get worse slowly. It often affects other muscles of the body, especially the lower legs, belly (abdomen), and hips. As FSHD gets worse, you may notice some of these other symptoms in your child:

  • Difficulty lifting the feet (foot drop). This may cause your child to drag his or her feet or lift his or her knees to walk with high steps.
  • Swayback (lordosis) in the lower back. This is because of weakened abdominal muscles.
  • Hip weakness. This only happens in some people with FSHD, usually in midlife. About 1 in 5 of people with FSHD need to use a wheelchair at some point.
  • Minor hearing loss. This is especially true for high pitches.
  • Problems affecting the retina of the eye (uncommon)
  • Sideways curving of the spine (scoliosis) (uncommon)
  • Rigid joints in the ankles that are hard to move (contractures) (uncommon)
  • Heart problems (rare)
  • Breathing problems (rare)

Key points about FSHD in children

  • FSHD is a rare genetic muscle disease that causes weakness in the muscles of your child’s face, shoulders, upper arms, and lower legs.
  • FSHD affects both boys and girls. Symptoms usually first appear in the teenage years. The disease slowly gets worse.
  • At first, FSHD may make it difficult to whistle, drink from a straw, smile, lift up the arms, or throw a ball. The condition may get worse and cause loss of mobility.
  • Physical therapy and supportive treatment can help your child manage FSHD.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Turley, Ray, BSN, MSN
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2017
© 2000-2017 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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