Tributes poured in for Gilbert Gottfried on Tuesday after news broke that he died in Manhattan. The 67-year-old comedian’s family shared on Twitter that he passed away “after a long illness.”
Gottfried’s publicist Glenn Schwartz later said in a statement to People that the comedian died from recurrent ventricular tachycardia due to myotonic dystrophy type II, a heart complication due to a form of muscular dystrophy.
Gottfried’s death has raised a lot of questions about muscular dystrophy, including its symptoms and how someone can actually die from the condition. Here’s what you need to know.
What is muscular dystrophy?
Muscular dystrophy is a group of muscle diseases that are caused by mutations in a person’s genes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Muscular dystrophy causes a person’s muscles to weaken and can make everyday tasks difficult, says Bakri Elsheikh, M.D., director of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center Muscular Dystrophy Association Care Center. “Some of the dystrophies also affect the heart and or breathing muscles,” he adds, noting that can turn deadly for some.
People develop muscular dystrophy “from a genetic defect that is passed from one or both parents to some of their children,” Dr. Elsheikh says.
There are more than 30 types of muscular dystrophy and each one impacts a specific muscle group, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “It’s a huge, huge range of diseases,” says Nizar Souayah, M.D., a professor of neurology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. The most common forms of muscular dystrophy include:
- Duchenne muscular dystrophy
- Becker muscular dystrophy
- Myotonic muscular dystrophy
- Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy
- Limb-girdle muscular dystrophy
“There is a whole spectrum of disease, just like there is cancer stage one through four,” says Clifford Segil, D.O., a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. “Some are more mild and some are on the more severe spectrum.”
What is myotonic muscular dystrophy?
Myotonic muscular dystrophy, which is the form of the condition that Gottfried had, is the most common adult-onset form of muscular dystrophy, according to the NIH. The condition is broken into type 1 and type 2, but both cause difficulty with muscles relaxing after a sudden contraction.
What are the symptoms of muscular dystrophy?
It depends on the type a person has, Dr. Segil says. As a whole, muscular dystrophy causes progressive muscle weakness but specific symptoms vary by type.
The most common form of muscular dystrophy—Duchenne—typically causes the following symptoms that usually show up in childhood, according to the Mayo Clinic:
- Frequent falls
- Difficulty rising from a lying or sitting position
- Trouble running and jumping
- Waddling gait
- Walking on the toes
- Large calf muscles
- Muscle pain and stiffness
- Learning disabilities
- Delayed growth
With myotonic muscular dystrophy, facial and neck muscles are usually the first to be impacted, the Mayo Clinic says, noting that people with this form of the condition usually have long, thin faces, drooping eyelids, and swanlike necks.
How is muscular dystrophy treated?
Treatment for muscular dystrophy can help manage the condition and some of its symptoms, but it can’t cure it, Dr. Segil says. “For much of muscular dystrophy, there is basically no treatment,” Dr. Souayah says. “The treatments are basically supportive. You have to take care of any complications.”
That includes things like physical therapy to keep muscles strong, respiratory therapy to maintain lung strength, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and surgery to treat problems associated with the condition, like heart issues or cataracts, the NIH says. Certain medications like glucocorticoids, anticonvulsants, immunosuppressants, and beta blockers can also help with muscle strength and spasms.
“There are definitely limitations to treatment,” Dr. Segil says.
While it’s possible to die from complications of muscular dystrophy, many people can lead a long and healthy life with the condition, Dr. Elsheikh says. “There is a range in severity,” Dr. Segil says. “Myotonic dystrophies are definitely on the more severe side.”