Scott Adams and focal dystonia

Scott Adams, the artist behind the comic Dilbert, has a movement disorder called focal dystonia that prevents him from drawing in the regular way. It, and his response to it, are discussed in an article in the Washington Post.

Focal dystonia, which can affect the hand (where it’s commonly called “writer’s cramp” when it affects writing), the neck (the most common site), eyelids or vocal chords, is something of a mystery. First reported in people who do fine finger work, including writers, seamstresses and musicians, it affects an estimated 29.5 individuals per 100,000 population […] Often, focal hand dystonia patients are people who use the small muscles of the fingers and hands.

What I find most interesting about this condition is its neurological roots, as the fine finger work coupled with the stress that often triggers focal dystonia appears to “teach” part of the brain some broken connections:

“We think the disorder is largely associated with the basal ganglia,” which are deep brain structures that help regulate movement, Karp [Barbara Karp, deputy clinical director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)] said. One theory is that repetitive movements or some other cause somehow trigger abnormal learning patterns in the brain.

One therapy for focal dystonia is “sensory training,” changing techniques of practice so that the sensory areas of the brain can learn again how to give proper feedback to the motion parts. Adams, in his case, now uses a graphics tablet and draws Dilbert at many times the final size.

Link to Scott Adams, Drawing the Line in the Washington Post.

4 Comments

  1. Posted May 29, 2005 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Dilbert and Focal Dystonia

    Scott Adams, the author of Dilbert has a condition called focal dystonia, which I’m going to define as a breakdown in the network between your brain and your hands: you tell your hand to draw a straight line and it starts drawing a squiggly line. Accor…

  2. jed
    Posted April 9, 2007 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been dealing with what I assume is focal dystonia for the better part of 15 years, as a former professional trombonist. When I say I “assume”, I mean my symptoms don’t lead to any other diagnosis, and I’ve been to every type of specialist imaginable. Just want to say what a hard time I’ve had going thru the process of trying to figure out a way to again play the trombone, work at it for years, only to finally give up altogether. It’s now been about a year and a half since I’ve touched an instrument. I miss alot of things having to do with music, and miss the feeling, sound and the role of the trombone in a musical group. Another friend of mine, another accomplished trombonist in this area, has gone throught the same thing, surprisingly, since it’s rare to hear about such a condition. But he’s been able to move on and learn another instrument, and now performs and teaches on that instrument. I have not had the same experience, and it’s been very difficult for me to move on and try something else. Maybe the combination of working a “normal” 40 hour week, and being too tired at the end of the day, or just not being able to decide if some other instrument would satisfy my musical needs, hard to say. Wanted to share this as there are few that fall into our “catagory”, and thus there isn’t really any support group per se for focal dystonia, yet support from people dealing with the same thing surely would be helpful. Looking for ideas of how those affected were able to move on…..thank you.

    • Posted November 22, 2010 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

      I recovered from embouchure dystonia – check the narrative on this web page…

  3. sonya
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    I, too, have been dealing with dystonia for 26 years now. I’m a left handed artist. I moved on by changing to my right hand for all my writing and drawing. It wasn’t easy trying to eat or even brush my teeth. The bad thing is that it has now jumped to my right hand so now I am back to the struggle of an out of control shakey, crampy hand. I’ve been an art teacher for the last 18 years now. I’m not sure what I’m going to do if I lose the use of both hands completely.


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