Stiff-person syndrome can be debilitating

Recently, superstar singer Celine Dion announced on Instagram that she was canceling her concert tour due to an incurable, progressive medical disorder. Her condition, called “stiff-person syndrome,” is a rare neurological disorder. The condition is suspected to be an autoimmune disorder. 

A person’s immune system consists of the organs and cells that protect the body from infections caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites, and even cancer cells. The immune system is similar to a surveillance system looking for invaders that do not belong. 

Sometimes the immune system fails to recognize a person’s own cells and responds to them as if they are an infectious agent. According to the Cleveland Clinic, there are more than 100 autoimmune disorders.

Stiff person syndrome impacts twice as many women as men. Symptoms may include stiff muscles in the torso, arms, and legs plus a greater sensitivity to environmental stimuli such as noise, touch, and emotional distress. 

Common, everyday sensations can lead to muscle spasms. These symptoms often respond to medications such as diazepam, a medication for anxiety, or muscle relaxants such as baclofen or gabapentin. For some, the spasms may be debilitating. 

Outwardly, others will experience physical changes in their appearance. For example, they may acquire a hunched-over posture and difficulty walking or moving. 

Many individuals with stiff person syndrome may need assistance to walk because their reflexes more slowly respond, which increases their risk for falling and experiencing serious fall-related injuries. Others may develop anxiety disorders such as panic attacks or agoraphobia, fear of leaving their home because normal noises such as traffic sounds cause muscle spasms. 

Because this condition is rare, the diagnosis can be isolating. While celebrities such as Celine Dion do not have an obligation to share their personal health concerns, their decision to do so can give others hope and bring attention and research dollars earmarked for such rare health conditions. 

To learn more about stiff person syndrome, please check out this website:

Dr. Dionne Hart is board certified in psychiatry and addiction medicine practicing in Illinois and Minnesota. She is an adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry at Mayo Clinic. In 2014, Dr. Hart was named Minnesota Psychiatrist of the Year. In 2017 she received the National Alliance on Mental Illness Exemplary Psychiatrist Award. Dr. Hart holds local, state, and national positions in organized medicine.  

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