How Does Botox Work?

Botox is not only the most popular minimally invasive cosmetic treatment in the world, but has medicinal qualities as well. Botox is a toxin that was named in 1870 after the Latin word for sausage because doctors noticed that people became ill after eating undercooked sausage. It took over 70 more years before physicians learned that this toxin works by paralyzing muscles and then another decade or so before researchers discovered that the toxin’s muscle paralyzing abilities might be useful. Still, there are a lot of people who don’t know exactly how Botox injections work. Here’s how Botox performs its magic:

How Botox Works

Botox is a purified form of the botulinum toxin, which is one of the most poisonous substances known to humankind. When the toxin is ingested or injected, it blocks the action of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that sends messages between nerve cells. When the toxin is introduced into the body, a nerve that uses acetylcholine takes up the toxin into a tiny structure found in the nerve cell called a vesicle. This moves into the cell and becomes acidic, which makes the toxin push through the vesicle and into the jelly-like material of the cell called cytoplasm. There, the toxin binds to complex proteins and stops the acetylcholine from transmitting signals. This process causes muscle paralysis. Yet, dermatologists, medical professionals, and researchers have learned to put this potentially deadly action to good use.

Uses of Botox

Botox is perhaps most famous for reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, especially crow’s feet and lines around the lips and forehead. It does this by paralyzing the muscles beneath them and causing them to smooth out. Botox also softens the appearance of sun damage. Another benefit of Botox is that the wrinkle or line is never as deep as it was before the treatment, even if the patient doesn’t return for touch-up treatments. Scientists believe this is because Botox “teaches” the muscle to stay relaxed.

A person who administers Botox needs to be highly skilled and have knowledge of over three dozen muscles in the face and what they do. During cosmetic treatment, the patient’s face is cleaned, the treatment area is numbed, and the Botox is administered through a fine needle. More than one syringe may need to be used depending on the depth of the wrinkle. A session usually lasts about a half an hour and is an outpatient procedure. There is some bruising and swelling afterwards, but this can be soothed with an ice pack or a cold pack and goes away within a few days. The patient must be careful not to rub or massage the area, for this can cause the Botox to spread to other areas, which can lead to complications.

Patients notice the improvement in their looks after a couple of weeks and these benefits can last for as long as six months. Rarely, Botox does not affect a patient because they have already been exposed to the toxin and have built up a resistance to it.

Medical Uses of Botox

Botulinin toxin was used to treat medical conditions many years before it was used as a cosmetic treatment. In the 1980s, a strain of botulinin toxin began to be used to treat crossed eyes and spasms of the eyelids and face in children. As the years went on, the botulinin toxin was used to treat cervical dystonia, or painful neck spasms and hyperhidrosis, where a person suffers from excessive sweating. Botulinin toxin also eases spasms in the vocal cords that interfere with speech.

Botox is injected into the scalp to treat chronic migraine headaches and is being studied to see if it can help with other kinds of chronic pain. Other medical uses include treating adults who’ve undergone traumatic brain injury and now suffer from spastic muscles in their fingers, wrists and elbows. Spasticity is a condition where the muscles stay contracted, which makes them stiff and difficult or painful to move properly. Botox is also used to treat this condition in multiple sclerosis and stroke patients.

It’s also used to treat:

  • Spasticity in the legs and the arms.
  • Urinary incontinence in people with multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injuries.
  • Sphincter of Oddi dysfunction. In this treatment, Botox is used to correct the backup of digestive juices and bile in the ducts caused by the spasming of the sphincter.
  • Spasming of the lower esophageal sphincter, which can interfere with the ability to eat. Botox also helps with spasms of the jaw.
  • Esotropia, a condition of babies where one eye or both eyes turn inward.
  • Depression. Botox injections in the muscles of the face responsible for conveying emotion can ease the depression of some patients. The way the muscles are configured sends signals to the brain and cause it to reinforce the emotions the muscles are expressing.

Botox was finally approved by the Canadian government for cosmetic use in 2001 and approved for a variety of cosmetic and medical uses by the Food and Drug Administration in 2002.