Dermatomyositis is a rare autoimmune disorder affecting the skin, muscles, and other organs. It is characterized by muscle weakness and a distinctive facial, neck, chest, and back rash. In some cases, it can also cause joint pain and difficulty swallowing. Fortunately, there are treatments available to help manage the symptoms of dermatomyositis. Here, we will explore what causes dermatomyositis, its symptoms, diagnosis, treatment options and more. 

History and Definition

Dermatomyositis is a rare autoimmune disease that was first described in the medical literature in the mid-19th century. The condition was initially called “dermatomyositis” by Dr. Unverricht in 1916, who observed skin changes in association with muscle inflammation. However, the disease was not fully recognized until the mid-20th century when several researchers described the characteristic skin rashes and muscle inflammation that are now associated with dermatomyositis.

Dermatomyositis is a rare disease, with an estimated incidence of approximately 1 in 100,000 people. It can affect individuals of any age but is most commonly diagnosed in adults between the ages of 40 and 60 and children between the ages of 5 and 15. Ongoing research is focused on better understanding the underlying mechanisms of the disease and developing new treatments to improve outcomes for individuals with dermatomyositis.


The symptoms of dermatomyositis can vary from person to person, and may include:

  • Muscle weakness: This is the most common symptom of dermatomyositis. The weakness typically affects the muscles closest to the trunk, such as the muscles in the hips, thighs, shoulders, neck, and back. The weakness may make it difficult to perform everyday activities such as walking, climbing stairs, lifting objects, and raising the arms.


  • Skin rashes: Individuals with dermatomyositis often develop distinctive skin rashes. These may include a bluish-purple rash on the eyelids, known as the “heliotrope rash,” as well as a red or purple rash on the chest, back, and extremities. Other skin changes may include scaly patches on the scalp, forehead, and back of the neck.


  • Difficulty swallowing: Some individuals with dermatomyositis may experience difficulty swallowing due to muscle weakness in the throat.


  • Shortness of breath: In some cases, the muscles involved in breathing may be affected by dermatomyositis, leading to shortness of breath.


  • Joint pain: Some individuals with dermatomyositis may experience joint pain and stiffness, particularly in the wrists, elbows, and knees.


  • Fatigue: Many individuals with dermatomyositis experience fatigue, which may be related to the underlying inflammation and muscle weakness.

Symptoms of dermatomyositis can develop gradually over time and may be mistaken for other conditions. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to see a healthcare provider for an evaluation and diagnosis.


The exact cause of dermatomyositis is not fully understood, but it is thought to be related to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Dermatomyositis is an autoimmune disease, which means that the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues in the body, leading to inflammation and damage.

In individuals with dermatomyositis, the immune system specifically targets the skin and muscles. This leads to inflammation in the blood vessels that supply these tissues, as well as damage to the muscle fibers themselves.


The diagnosis of dermatomyositis typically involves a combination of medical history, physical examination, laboratory tests, and imaging studies. Here are some of the common steps in the diagnostic process for dermatomyositis:

  • Medical history: A healthcare provider will typically ask about the individual’s symptoms and medical history. This may include questions about the onset and duration of muscle weakness, skin rashes, difficulty swallowing, and other symptoms.


  • Physical examination: A healthcare provider will typically perform a thorough physical examination, looking for characteristic signs of dermatomyositis, such as the heliotrope rash and muscle weakness.


  • Laboratory tests: Several laboratory tests may be used to help diagnose dermatomyositis, including:


  • Creatine kinase (CK) test: This blood test measures the level of CK, an enzyme that is released from damaged muscle fibers. Elevated CK levels may be a sign of muscle damage or inflammation.


  • Antinuclear antibody (ANA) test: This blood test looks for antibodies that are commonly seen in individuals with autoimmune diseases.


  • Myositis-specific antibodies (MSAs): These blood tests look for antibodies that are specifically associated with dermatomyositis and other forms of myositis.


  • Imaging studies: Imaging studies may be used to look for evidence of muscle inflammation or damage. These may include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT) scans, or ultrasound.


  • Muscle biopsy: A muscle biopsy involves removing a small sample of muscle tissue and examining it under a microscope. This can help confirm a diagnosis of dermatomyositis by showing characteristic patterns of inflammation and damage in the muscle tissue.

The diagnosis of dermatomyositis can be challenging, as the disease can present with a wide range of symptoms and can be easily mistaken for other conditions. If you are experiencing symptoms of dermatomyositis, it is important to see a healthcare provider for an evaluation and diagnosis.


The treatment of dermatomyositis typically involves a combination of medications and supportive therapies. Surgical interventions are not typically used to treat dermatomyositis, as the disease primarily affects the skin and muscles rather than internal organs. Here are some of the common approaches to treating dermatomyositis:


Several medications may be used to help manage the symptoms of dermatomyositis and slow the progression of the disease. These may include:

  • Corticosteroids: These medications, such as prednisone, are used to reduce inflammation and suppress the immune system. They are typically the first-line treatment for dermatomyositis.


  • Immunosuppressant drugs: These medications, such as methotrexate or azathioprine, are used to further suppress the immune system and reduce inflammation.


  • Biologic agents: These medications, such as rituximab, target specific components of the immune system and may be used in individuals who do not respond to other treatments.


  • Topical agents: These medications, such as topical corticosteroids, may be used to manage skin rashes associated with dermatomyositis.


  • Physical therapy: Physical therapy may be used to help individuals with dermatomyositis maintain muscle strength and function, as well as to prevent muscle contractures and joint stiffness.


  • Occupational therapy: Occupational therapy may be used to help individuals with dermatomyositis adapt to changes in their physical abilities and continue to perform activities of daily living.

  • Supportive therapies: Other supportive therapies, such as speech therapy for difficulty swallowing or respiratory therapy for breathing difficulties, may be recommended as needed.

The prognosis for dermatomyositis varies depending on the severity of the disease and how well it responds to treatment. With early diagnosis and appropriate treatment, many individuals with dermatomyositis can achieve remission or stable disease. However, some individuals may experience ongoing symptoms and complications, such as muscle weakness, skin rashes, and difficulty swallowing.

Individuals with dermatomyositis need to work closely with their healthcare providers to monitor their symptoms and adjust their treatment as needed. With ongoing management and care, many individuals with dermatomyositis can lead active, fulfilling lives.

Risk Factors

The exact cause of dermatomyositis is not well understood, and there is no single known risk factor that can predict who will develop the disease. However, several factors have been associated with an increased risk of developing dermatomyositis, including:

  • Age: Dermatomyositis can occur at any age, but it is most commonly diagnosed in individuals between the ages of 40 and 60.


  • Gender: Women are more likely than men to develop dermatomyositis.


  • Genetics: There may be a genetic component to dermatomyositis, as the disease has been known to run in families. However, no specific genes have been identified as the cause of the disease.


  • Environmental factors: Certain environmental factors, such as viral infections, exposure to certain drugs or chemicals, and ultraviolet radiation from the sun, may trigger the development of dermatomyositis in individuals who are genetically predisposed to the disease.


  • Other medical conditions: Some medical conditions, such as autoimmune diseases, cancer, and lung diseases, may increase the risk of developing dermatomyositis.

If you have any concerns about your risk of developing dermatomyositis, it is important to speak with your healthcare provider. They can help you understand your risk factors and develop a plan for preventing or managing the disease if it does occur.


Dermatomyositis is a complex disease that can affect various parts of the body, and as such, several possible complications can arise from the condition. Some of the most common complications of dermatomyositis include:

  • Muscle weakness: Dermatomyositis can cause muscle weakness, which can lead to difficulty with activities of daily living, such as walking, climbing stairs, and lifting objects.


  • Dysphagia: Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, can occur in some individuals with dermatomyositis, particularly if the disease affects the muscles in the throat.


  • Interstitial lung disease: Interstitial lung disease, which is a group of lung disorders characterized by inflammation and scarring of the lung tissue, can occur in individuals with dermatomyositis. This can lead to difficulty breathing and decreased oxygenation of the blood.


  • Raynaud’s phenomenon: Raynaud’s phenomenon is a condition characterized by the narrowing of the blood vessels in the hands and feet, leading to reduced blood flow and numbness, tingling, or pain in these areas. It can occur in individuals with dermatomyositis due to inflammation and damage to the blood vessels.


  • Increased risk of cancer: Some studies have suggested that individuals with dermatomyositis may have an increased risk of developing certain types of cancer, particularly ovarian, lung, pancreatic, and stomach cancers.


  • Skin complications: Dermatomyositis can cause a range of skin complications, including skin rashes, ulcers, and calcium deposits under the skin.

Managing any potential complications of dermatomyositis with the help of your healthcare provider is essential for individuals with this disease. With appropriate care and management, many of these complications can be prevented or treated.

When to See a Doctor

It is important to see a doctor if you suspect you may have dermatomyositis, as early diagnosis and treatment can help improve outcomes and prevent complications. You should see a doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Skin rash: A violet-colored or dusky-red rash on the face, neck, chest, back, elbows, knees, or knuckles that lasts for weeks or months.


  • Muscle weakness: Difficulty with activities such as climbing stairs, getting up from a seated position or lifting objects.


  • Joint pain: Pain, stiffness, and swelling in the joints.


  • Shortness of breath: Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, which may indicate lung involvement.


  • Swallowing difficulties: Difficulty swallowing or choking on food, which may indicate throat involvement.


  • Fatigue: Persistent fatigue and weakness.


  • Fever: Unexplained fever.

The doctor will perform a physical examination, review your medical history, and order tests to confirm the diagnosis and determine the severity of the condition. Early diagnosis and treatment can help manage the symptoms and prevent long-term complications.

Step-by-Step Guide to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Treatment

Here is a step-by-step guide to the dermatomyositis treatment process:


If you are experiencing symptoms of dermatomyositis, such as muscle weakness, skin rash, or difficulty swallowing, it is important to seek medical attention promptly. Your healthcare provider will perform a physical examination and order diagnostic tests, such as blood tests, imaging studies, and muscle biopsies, to confirm a diagnosis of dermatomyositis.


The mainstay of dermatomyositis treatment is immunosuppressive medications, which work to decrease inflammation and prevent damage to the body’s tissues. These medications may include corticosteroids, such as prednisone, and other immunosuppressive agents, such as methotrexate, azathioprine, or mycophenolate mofetil. Your healthcare provider will work with you to develop an individualized treatment plan based on the severity of your symptoms and your overall health.

Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation

Physical therapy and rehabilitation are important components of dermatomyositis treatment, particularly for individuals with muscle weakness or difficulty with activities of daily living. A physical therapist can help to develop an exercise program to improve strength, mobility, and function, while an occupational therapist can provide strategies to adapt to daily tasks and prevent injury.

Additional Treatments

In some cases, additional treatments may be needed to manage symptoms of dermatomyositis. For example, individuals with interstitial lung disease may require supplemental oxygen therapy, while those with dysphagia may benefit from speech therapy or dietary modifications. Your healthcare provider will work with you to develop a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses all aspects of your condition.

Follow-Up Care

After initiating treatment for dermatomyositis, it is important to maintain regular follow-up care with your healthcare provider to monitor your response to treatment and manage any potential side effects. Your medications may need to be adjusted over time, and you may require additional diagnostic tests or treatments as your condition evolves.


In conclusion, dermatomyositis is a rare autoimmune disorder that affects the skin and muscles. It is characterized by muscle weakness, rashes, and other associated symptoms. Treatment for this condition includes medications such as corticosteroids and immunosuppressants to reduce inflammation and control the body’s immune response. Early diagnosis of dermatomyositis is important to provide effective treatment before serious complications can occur. With proper care and management, people with dermatomyositis can lead healthy lives.


Dr. Colin Hong is an experienced plastic surgeon in Toronto, offering a range of cosmetic, plastic, and reconstructive surgeries for over 35 years. His services are also affordably priced, making them accessible to patients in Toronto, North York, and Markham.

To request a consultation with Dr. Hong, you can contact his office at (416) 222-6986 or send an email to Please include your full name, email, and phone number for a timely response. It is important to note that a referral from your family doctor is required to schedule an appointment for dermatomyositis treatment with Dr. Colin Hong.

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