Spinal Muscular Atrophy


Here you’ll find answers to some of the questions that parents often have about this condition. Additional resources are listed at the bottom of the page. Diagnosis and management information can be found in Spinal Muscular Atrophy module, which is written for primary care clinicians but also may be of help to parents and family members.

What is spinal muscular atrophy and what causes it?

Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is an inherited disorder which causes early death of motor neurons leading to muscle weakening.

What are the symptoms of spinal muscular atrophy?

There is a spectrum of how severely children with SMA are affected. Symptoms will depend on SMA subtype and patient age. Infants with severe SMA are very weak and have difficulty swallowing and breathing. SMA may also be diagnosed in toddlers and even older children based on the appearance of muscle weakness with normal intellectual ability.

How is it diagnosed?

SMA is suspected by a patient’s history and presentation but diagnosed by genetic testing.

What is the prognosis?

The prognosis will depend on the severity (or subtype) of SMA. Infants who show symptoms of SMA will often have difficulty with swallowing and breathing. In these children, therapies such as feeding tubes and respiratory support are necessary to prevent death. Toddlers and young children may learn to sit and walk but may also have respiratory and swallowing difficulties leading to a shortened life span.

What is the risk for other family members or future babies?

SMA is an inherited, autosomal recessive condition. This means that both biologic parents are carriers of the gene mutation that causes SMA. As such, a couple’s future babies will have a 1 in 4 chance of having SMA, a 2 in 4 chance of being carriers of SMA, and a 1 in 4 chance of not having the gene mutation or the disease. If you have concerns regarding weakness in other children, you should ask your physician as it is possible that other children also have the condition.

What treatments/therapies/medications are recommended or available?

SMA is a complicated medical condition and currently there is no treatment for the underlying genetic cause. There are many therapies available, however, to help with symptoms, for instance, respiratory treatments, range of motion exercises, and help with ambulation. Your child should be seen regularly by physicians familiar with SMA.

How will my child and our family be impacted?

The degree of impact will depend on the severity of the disease. Infants with SMA will often not make it past their first year unless they are supported with feeding tubes and assisted ventilation. Older children may have many problems including difficulty sitting, difficulty walking, scoliosis, and respiratory or swallowing problems but usually to a lesser extent than infants diagnosed with SMA early on.

I would like to meet other families who have a child with SMA. How can I find them?

There are several family support organizations to help you connect with other families. These include Cure SMA, SMA Support Inc., and others.

My child's doctor says she needs a cough assist device but my insurance won't pay for it. What can I do?

Contact your child's doctor and inform him or her of the denial from insurance. He/she can write a letter of medical necessity (for information see Writing Letters of Medical Necessity) and request reconsideration. A letter from the pulmonologist may also be necessary. "Families of SMA" also has an equipment loaning service that might be helpful. To access this service, see the website or email

Is there any treatment for my child with SMA? I bring him to the doctors regularly, but his condition continues to worsen.

Although there are some ongoing clinical trials and treatments possibly on the horizon, SMA is a complicated medical condition. You might schedule a longer visit with your Medical Home provider, making it clear to the scheduler that you need a prolonged visit to discuss your concerns.


Information & Support

Where can I go for further information?

For Parents and Patients


Cure SMA
Offers information about research in SMA, access to support and local chapters, and opportunities for fundraising.

SMA Support Inc.
Online information, family support, and research fund-raising


Spinal Muscular Atrophy (Genetics Home Reference)
Excellent, detailed review of condition for patients and families; U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Utah chapter, Families of SMA
Contact the state chapter of Families of Spinal Muscular Atrophy for local new and chapter events.

Spinal Muscular Atrophy (MedlinePlus)
A brief description of SMA, along with numerous links to further information; sponsored by the National Library of Medicine.

SMA Coalition
A coalition of SMA-focused nonprofits working toward increased awareness and help for those with SMA.

Spinal Muscular Atrophy (GeneReviews)
An expert-authored, peer-reviewed, current disease description that applies genetic testing to diagnosis and management information; U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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Authors & Reviewers

Initial Publication: October 2012; Last Update: August 2016
Current Authors and Reviewers (click on name for bio):
Reviewer: Meghan Candee, MD
Funding: The Medical Home Portal thanks the 2011-2012 URLEND Medical Home Portal trainees group for their contribution to this page.