Diagnosis of Myasthenia Gravis Confirmed with Tensilon Test

Post prepared by Dr Mrugesh Panchani, PGYIII Medicine Resident, Monmouth Medical Center.

For patients with clinical features and signs suggestive of myasthenia gravis, the Tensilon test can serve as an easy bedside confirmatory test.

Edrophonium (Tensilon) is an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor and we have already blogged about how these drugs can improve conduction across the neuromuscular junction in myasthenics.

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Tensilon is preferable for diagnostic testing because of the rapid onset (30 s) and short duration (5 min) of its effect.

However, an objective end-point must be selected to evaluate the therapeutic effect, such as improvement in eye movements, ptosis, impairment of speech, or the length of time that the patient can maintain the arms in forward abduction.

Here’s a real life example (we have a signed consent form on file):

The first video shows our patient at her baseline with R>L ptosis and facial weakness:

Then the patient is given a low dose (2mg) of iv Tensilon (with telemetry monitoring and bedside atropine at the ready) is given and we see a definite improvement in ptosis and a more expressionful face:

This test was considered positive and hence terminated.

Had there been no change, the patient would have been given an additional 8 mg of iv Tensilon.

We typically start with a low dose at first because some patients react to edrophonium with side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, salivation, fasciculation, and (rarely) bradycardia. Atropine (0.6 mg) should be drawn up in a syringe, ready for IV administration if these symptoms occur.

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Drooping eyelids (ptosis)

Ptosis can affect one or both eyes and results from weakness affecting the muscles that raise the eyelid.

L ptosis

Left sided ptosis

Ptosis can be congenital (you are born with it), or acquired (it develops during life).

Acquired ptosis can result from a variety of problems affecting the nerves, muscles, neuromuscular junction or tendons involved in elevating the eye lids.

Neurogenic ptosis is usually unilateral, and can be caused by a lesion affecting either the oculomotor nerve or the sympathetic nerve fibers to the eye (Horner’s syndrome).

When ptosis is caused by an oculomotor nerve lesion, there is  generally also some degree of eye movement abnormality (ophthalmoparesis).  Oculomotor nerve palsy can be caused by something as simple as diabetes, but if the nerve fibers to the pupil are involved (causing a dilated pupil in addition to the ptosis and ophthalmoparesis), that is very suggestive of a compressive lesion such as an aneurysm (see below) and warrants immediate evaluation.

R ptosis, occulomotor palsy (eye is deviated down and outwards), with a dilated pupil, caused by nerve compression from aneurysm (red arrow)

R ptosis, oculomotor palsy (eye is deviated down and outwards), with a dilated unreactive pupil, caused by nerve compression from aneurysm (red arrow)

Horner’s syndrome causes mild ptosis associated with a small pupil (miosis) sometimes associated with lack of sweating (anhidrosis) on the face, and can be caused by trauma to the carotid artery, lung tumors, or strokes.

L Horner's syndrome with mild ptosis and miosis

L Horner’s syndrome with mild ptosis and miosis

Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune disease that affects the neuromuscular junction, and frequently presents with fatiguable ptosis often associated with double vision and limb weakness.   The ptosis will usually get worse when the patients is tired at the end of the day (diurnal variation):

Fatiguable ptosis in myasthenia gravis

Fatiguable ptosis in myasthenia gravis

The ptosis of myasthenia can be temporarily improved with an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor medication, such as an injection of edrophonium (Tensilon), and this can used a diagnostic test.

Ptosis can also be seen in certain muscle diseases, including oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy, mitochondrial myopathy and myotonic dystrophy.

Bilateral ptosis in a patient with myotonic muscular dystrophy

Bilateral ptosis in a patient with myotonic muscular dystrophy

However, acquired ptosis is most commonly caused by dehiscence or disinsertion of the levator aponeurosis, causing a disconnection between the eye lid and the elevating muscles.

This usually occurs in elderly patients, but can sometimes affect younger contact lens users.

L ptosis from levator dehiscence - Note that when the eye is closed, the lid crease is fainter and further away from the lid margin in the left eye, compared to the right eye

L ptosis from levator dehiscence – Note that when the eye is closed, the lid crease is fainter and further away from the lid margin in the left eye, compared to the right eye

Patients who notice a drooping eyelid, unequal pupils, or double vision should consult with a neurologist in order to establish the correct diagnosis.

After that, treatment might include medical therapy for an underlying disorder (such as diabetes or myasthenia), surgery or even eye lid crutches:

Myasthenic patient with isolated L ptosis, demonstrating improvement with the eye lid "crutch"

Myasthenic patient with isolated L ptosis, demonstrating improvement with the eye lid “crutch”