Multiple System Atrophy

For Multiple system atrophy (MSA) is a rare but serious neurological disorder that can affect movement, balance, speech, blood pressure and bladder and bowel function. Its symptoms often mimic those of Parkinson’s disease and ataxia. There is no cure, and many physicians are not familiar with the condition – meaning MSA is often misdiagnosed. However, symptoms can be managed, which is why it’s important to be evaluated and treated by physicians who have experience dealing with MSA. The University of Michigan’s multidisciplinary Movement Disorder Program is home to neurological specialists who have extensive experience in the diagnosis, management and treatment of the disease. We see a high volume of MSA patients every year and are members of MSA physician’s groups in North America, Europe, Japan and China.

MSA affects approximately 3 out of every 100,000 people over the age of 50. There are no known risk factors other than increasing age. Symptoms can present in one of three ways, or any combination of the three. They are:

  • Parkinsonism, characterized by slow and stiff movement, soft speech and frequent falls
  • Cerebellar ataxia, characterized by irregular movements, trouble walking in straight lines, limb tremors and frequent falls
  • Autonomic nervous system symptoms, such as bladder incontinence, drop in blood pressure when moving from lying or sitting to standing and loss of sweating.

Diagnosis of MSA can vary according to symptoms. For example, if a patient has Parkinson-like symptoms but is not responding to medication normally used to treat the disease, it can be a sign that MSA is causing the symptoms. Our neurologists monitor patients closely and run all necessary tests to ensure the correct diagnosis is made.

Because there is no cure for MSA, treatment is focused on improving symptoms and quality of life. Treatment often includes medications to help control symptoms. Patients experiencing drops in blood pressure also receive dietary counseling, which helps them better regulate their blood pressure. We also work closely with urologists to treat patients who are experiencing urinary difficulties. Because a diagnosis can be life-changing, our patients also have access to U-M’s psychiatrists and counselors, who will help both the patient and family members cope with the disease.

We are also at the forefront of ongoing and groundbreaking research. One such example is a National Institutes of Health multi-center national clinical trial for the use of Rifampicin in treating MSA. The desired outcome is to determine whether the medication slows progression of the disease. Our researchers are also studying the natural history of MSA, the biochemical changes found in the brain and determination of the extent of heart involvement in the disease.  Please consider making a gift in support of our research efforts.

To make an appointment, call 734-764-6831.