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Athetosis: Definition & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Athetosis is a symptom of a brain disorder that causes repetitive, slow, and involuntary muscle movements. This lesson will describe the disorder, its symptoms and causes, as well as possible treatment options.

What Is Athetosis?

Sometimes we can take our muscle control for granted. Being unable to control one's own movements can have a huge affect on daily life, from the practical to the social. One form of this lack of control is athetosis, from the Greek word 'athetos' meaning 'not fixed'.

Athetosis refers to spastic involuntary movements that occur due to some type of brain injury or illness - this damaged area is referred to as a lesion. Athetosis is characterized by repetitive, slow, writhing movements, most often affecting the arms or hands; however, the legs, feet, torso, or neck may also be affected.

As a result, muscles involuntarily undergo repeated extension and flexion (bending), or, in cases affecting the feet, pronation and supination.

Causes of Athetosis

Athetosis isn't a medical condition in itself; rather, it's usually the symptom of another neurological disorder. The most common underlying cause is damage to the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia is the region of brain responsible for coordinating movement and is involved in making movements smooth rather than jerky.

Damage to the basal ganglia can result in athetosis.
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There are actually quite a few different neurological conditions that can cause athetosis, including:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Brain tumor
  • Hepatic encephalopathy
  • Huntington's disease
  • Wilson's disease
  • Rett syndrome
  • Trauma to the brain
  • Stroke

In some cases, athetosis may occur with other movement disorders, like chorea. Involuntary movements indicative to chorea are faster and more abrupt than those experienced in athetosis; however, when both conditions are present, it's called choreoathetosis.

Treating Athetosis

Treating athetosis is difficult because like we learned, it's a symptom of another problem instead of a condition in itself. Thus, treating athetosis means treating the underlying disorder, many of which have no cure.

Sometimes medication can help limit involuntary muscle action. For example, antipsychotic drugs that inhibit dopamine in the brain can sometimes help control movements. In other scenarios, occupational therapy may be useful. It won't cure symptoms, but it can make living with the symptoms more manageable.

If spasms are isolated to one part of the body, surgical intervention may work. In these procedures, the corresponding nerve is severed to stop the pulses signalling the muscle to move. However, this type of treatment is not commonly used.

Frightening History of Treatment

Historical treatment options weren't as kind. Many of them are controversial now, and no longer used in modern medicine. For example, electrotherapy was once considered a viable treatment option. Electric current was applied to the brain or spinal cord. Some patients experienced short-term symptom relief, but electrotherapy never proved to be a permanent solution.

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