Athetosis is a continuous stream of slow, sinuous, writhing movements, typically of the hands and feet and in some cases, arms, legs, neck and tongue. Movements typical to athetosis are sometimes called athetoid movements. It is said to be caused by damage to the corpus striatum of the brain, and can particularly to the corpus striatum.
Athetosis can vary from mild to severe motor dysfunction; it is generally characterized by unbalanced, involuntary movements of muscle tone and a difficulty maintaining a symmetrical posture. The associated motor dysfunction can be restricted to a part of body or present throughout the body, depending on the individual and the severity of the symptom. One of the pronounced signs can be observed in the extremities in particular, as the writhing, convoluted movement of the digits. Athetosis can appear as early as 18 months from birth with first signs including difficulty feeding, hypotonia, spasm, and involuntary writhing movements of the hands, feet, and face, which progressively worsen through adolescence and at times of emotional distress. Athetosis is caused by lesions in several brain areas such as the hippocampus and the motor thalamus, as well as the corpus striatum; therefore children during the developmental age could possibly suffer from cognitive deficits such as speech impairment, hearing loss, and failed or delayed acquirement of sitting balance.
Athetosis is a symptom primarily caused by the marbling, or degeneration of the basal ganglia. This degeneration is most commonly caused by complications at birth or by Huntington's disease, in addition to rare cases in which the damage may also arise later in life due to stroke or trauma. The two complications of particular interest are intranatal asphyxia and neonatal jaundice.
There are several different treatment approaches to dealing with athetosis. The most common methods are the use of drugs, surgical intervention, and retraining movements of the afflicted person. It is suggested that training a person to relearn movements can be helpful in select situations. Though, generally, this type of treatment will not work, in certain cases it can be found to be very helpful in treating the symptom of athetosis.
Drugs can also be used in the treatment of athetosis, however their collective effectiveness is not very convincing. There is not a single drug that is a standard among treatment and different medicines can be used to cure the disease. Most instances of drug use where the symptoms seem to be lessened tend to be in more mild cases of athetosis.
Treatment by surgical intervention can obviously have the most immediate impact, again however, it is not a cure-all. In patients that have cerebral palsy as the cause of their athetosis, it has been demonstrated that a subthalamotomy tends to help relieve the extent of athetosis in approximately half of patients. While surgery is often very beneficial in the short term and can produce near immediate results, in the long term it has been seen that its effects are not incredibly long lasting.