Myasthenia Gravis - MG

Myasthenia gravis (MG) is an autoimmune disease usually caused by antibodies that block or destroy receptors for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, leading to muscle weakness and fatigue.

  • Diagnosis
  • Background
  • Pediatrics
  • Lab Tests
  • References
  • Related Topics
  • Videos

Indications for Testing

  • Confirmation of clinical diagnosis of myasthenia gravis (MG)
  • Assessment and management of individual with MG following immunomodulatory treatment or plasmapheresis
  • Prognostic predictor of thymoma in individual with acetylcholine receptor (AchR) antibody-positive MG

Laboratory Testing

  • Serum antibody testing – positive test in symptomatic individuals is diagnostic of MG
    • Anti-AChR
      • Positive in ~85% of individuals with confirmed MG
        • Specificity approaches 100%
      • Negative AChR does not exclude disease
        • Common for ocular MG
    • Anti-MuSK
      • Detectable in ~40% of anti-AChR-negative patients
      • Bulbar symptoms more common if this antibody is present
      • Much more common closer to tropical latitudes
    • Striational/titin - antibodies
      • Detectable in >80% of thymomatous MG and some cases of nonthymomatous MG patients
      • May occur in the absence of acetylcholine receptor antibody in patients with MG
      • Rare in ocular MG
      • Presence of titin antibodies in early onset disease indicates ≥95% likelihood of an underlying thymoma
    • Absence of disease-associated antibodies does not exclude diagnosis – so-called seronegative disease
      • Predominantly female
      • Respiratory and bulbar muscles frequently involved

Other Testing

  • Consider anticholinesterase testing (Tensilon test using edrophonium) in AChR-negative patients – improvement in muscle strength is diagnostic of MG
  • Repetitive stimulation or single-fiber electromyogram
    • Positive in 90% of MG patients – demonstrates a primary postsynaptic neuromuscular junctional disorder
  • Chest x-ray/CT – rule out thymoma


  • May predict the presence of thymoma in patients with acetylcholine receptor antibody-positive myasthenia gravis who are <50 years

Differential Diagnosis


  • Prevalence – 0.5-14.2/100,000
  • Age – mean age of onset
    • Women – 28 years
    • Men – 42 years
  • Sex
    • Female predominance of MG in individuals <50 years
    • No gender predominance for >60 years
    • Incidence rate increases with age for both genders


  • Autoimmune disorder
    • Immune response creates acetylcholine receptor (AChR) antibodies
      •  AChR antibodies are IgG (predominantly IgG1 or IgG3); MuSK antibodies are predominantly IgG4
      • Binding and activation of complement at the neuromuscular junction can lead to loss of AChR
      • Modulating with accelerated internalization and degradation of AChR molecules crosslinked by antibody result in loss of AChR (correlates most closely with clinical severity of disease)
      • Blocking functional AChR impairs binding of acetylcholine to receptor, resulting in poor muscle contraction
    • Postsynaptic membrane is destroyed and decreases available binding sites for acetylcholine, leading to muscle weakness
  • Iatrogenic causes of MG – D. penicillamine, alfa-interferon, bone marrow transplantation

Clinical Presentation

  • Characteristic sporadic muscle weakness that worsens after affected muscles are used (fatigable weakness)
    • Usually presents first in the extrinsic ocular muscles and progresses to muscles in the extremities
  • Bulbar symptoms – dysphagia, dysarthria
  • Extraocular muscle (EOM) weakness – diplopia, ptosis
    • Symptoms are present in 2/3 of patients
    • Disease is considered ocular MG if symptoms remain limited to EOM (10% of patients)
  • Respiratory failure in small percentage of patients
    • Death in severe cases
    • May be associated with thymoma
  • Commonly associated autoimmune disorders (50% of patients)


  • Anticholinesterase drugs, thymectomy, immunosuppression, and plasmapheresis

Clinical Background


  • Incidence – 1-5/1,000,000  in western countries
  • Age
    • Rare in infancy
    • Increases in puberty
  • Sex – prepubertal: M:F, equal; postpubertal: M<F
  • Ethnicity – much higher in Asian populations

Clinical Presentation

  • Severe generalized weakness
  • Bulbar symptoms
  • Thymoma incidence lower than in adults
  • Patients <10 years – aggressive tumor nature


Indications for Testing

  • See Diagnosis tab

Laboratory Testing

  • Anti-AChR – lower rate of positivity than in adults
  • Anti-MuSK – rare in young children
  • Higher rate of seronegative disease
Tests generally appear in the order most useful for common clinical situations. Click on number for test-specific information in the ARUP Laboratory Test Directory.

Acetylcholine Receptor Antibodies and Striated Muscle Antibodies Reflexive Panels, and Titin Antibody 2005639
Method: Quantitative Radioimmunoassay/Semi-Quantitative Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay/Semi-Quantitative Indirect Fluorescent Antibody/Semi-Quantitative Flow Cytometry


Absence of AChR antibody does not rule out diagnosis of MG

Rare false-positive radioimmunoprecipitation assay results (~0.05%) are reported for AChR binding antibody

~15% of individuals with MG fail to demonstrate any AChR antibodies

Autoimmune Neuromuscular Junction Reflexive Panel 2005640
Method: Quantitative Radioimmunoassay/Qualitative Radiobinding Assay/Semi-Quantitative Flow Cytometry/Semi-Quantitative Indirect Fluorescent Antibody


Absence of AChR antibody does not rule out diagnosis of MG

Rare false-positive radioimmunoprecipitation assay results (~0.05%) are reported for AChR binding antibody

~15% of individuals with MG fail to demonstrate any AChR antibodies

Muscle-Specific Receptor Tyrosine Kinase (MuSK) Antibody by RIA 2012420
Method: Quantitative Radioimmunoassay

General References

Angelini C. Diagnosis and management of autoimmune myasthenia gravis. Clin Drug Investig. 2011; 31(1): 1-14. PubMed

Argov Z. Current approach to seronegative myasthenia. J Neurol. 2011; 258(1): 14-8. PubMed

Evoli A. Acquired myasthenia gravis in childhood. Curr Opin Neurol. 2010; 23(5): 536-40. PubMed

Juel VC, Massey JM. Myasthenia gravis. Orphanet J Rare Dis. 2007; 2: 44. PubMed

Leite I, Waters P, Vincent A. Diagnostic use of autoantibodies in myasthenia gravis. Autoimmunity. 2010; 43(5-6): 371-9. PubMed

Luchanok U, Kaminski HJ. Ocular myasthenia: diagnostic and treatment recommendations and the evidence base. Curr Opin Neurol. 2008; 21(1): 8-15. PubMed

Silvestri NJ, Wolfe GI. Myasthenia gravis. Semin Neurol. 2012; 32(3): 215-26. PubMed

Spillane J, Higham E, Kullmann DM. Myasthenia gravis. BMJ. 2012; 345: e8497. PubMed

Tormoehlen LM, Pascuzzi RM. Thymoma, myasthenia gravis, and other paraneoplastic syndromes. Hematol Oncol Clin North Am. 2008; 22(3): 509-26. PubMed

Trouth AJ, Dabi A, Solieman N, Kurukumbi M, Kalyanam J. Myasthenia gravis: a review. Autoimmune Dis. 2012; 2012: 874680. PubMed

References from the ARUP Institute for Clinical and Experimental Pathology®

Carr AS, Cardwell CR, McCarron PO, McConville J. A systematic review of population based epidemiological studies in Myasthenia Gravis. BMC Neurol. 2010; 10: 46. PubMed

Cromar A, Lozier BK, Haven TR, Hill HR. Detection of Acetylcholine Receptor Blocking Antibodies by Flow Cytometry. Am J Clin Pathol. 2016; 145(1): 81-5. PubMed

Haven TR, Astill ME, Pasi BM, Carper JB, Wu LL, Tebo AE, Hill HR. An algorithm for acetylcholine receptor antibody testing in patients with suspected myasthenia gravis. Clin Chem. 2010; 56(6): 1028-9. PubMed

Haven TR, Lyons BW, Pasi BM, Wu LL, Astill ME, Hill HR. Effect of acetylcholine receptor source on detection and quantification of anti-acetylcholine receptor-binding antibody. Clin Chem. 2008; 54(9): 1580-1. PubMed

Lozier BK, Haven TR, Astill ME, Hill HR. Detection of acetylcholine receptor modulating antibodies by flow cytometry Am J Clin Pathol. 2015; 143(2): 186-92; quiz 305. PubMed

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Last Update: October 2017