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Athetosis: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment

Verified By Apollo Doctors December 29, 2022 1656 0
Athetosis: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment
Athetosis: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment


Movement disorders are many. But some are more severe than others. Understanding the signs and causes of various disorders allows a patient to seek early medical intervention for a better quality of life. This blog delves deep into the movement disorder Athetosis, its symptoms, causes and available treatment options.  

What is athetosis? 

Athetosis is a movement disorder characterized by uncontrollable writhing movements. Usually, these affect the hands, arms, and feet. The neck, cheeks, tongue, and trunk may also be affected. The body parts may appear to be rolling slowly or continuously, and these movements could also make it challenging to keep a stable, symmetrical posture. 

Athetosis may be ongoing, and the same body parts continually get impacted by this. But attempting to limit movement can make it worse. For instance, if someone with the syndrome tries to type on a computer keyboard, they can have difficulty controlling where and how long their fingers stay in one place. 

What are the symptoms of athetosis? 

The signs or symptoms that may indicate athetosis are:  

  • Erratic and unpredictable variations in muscular motion aggravate symptoms when attempting to control the movement 
  • Sluggish, writhing, involuntary muscle motions 
  • Symptoms worsen as one tries to stand up straight
  • Difficulty talking 
  • Muscle overflow may also occur in those with athetosis. This is when one tries to control one muscle or muscle group, and another muscle group moves uncontrollably.  

What is the difference between chorea versus athetosis? 

Chorea and athetosis have several similar characteristics. In actuality, they may coexist; in such cases, they are collectively known as choreoathetosis. Slow chorea is another name for the flowing and twisting movements of athetosis. 

But chorea symptoms are a little different. They may include: 

  • Short, erratic movements 
  • Rhythmic jerking movements that resemble dancing 
  • Sudden muscular contractions which are uncontrollable, abrupt, and unpredictable  
  • Chorea mainly impacts the limbs, trunk, face, and mouth. 

What is the difference between dystonia and athetosis? 

Dystonia is another movement disorder involving persistent and uncontrollable muscle contractions. It may include repetitive twisting motions. Dystonia, like athetosis, can make it challenging to maintain a regular posture. 

Some of the dystonia symptoms include: 

  • One or more repeated postures 
  • Continuous or intermittent muscular contractions 
  • Abnormal and repetitive movements 
  • Asymmetrical posture

Dystonia symptoms may worsen if one tries to restrain the muscles. Muscle overflow is another characteristic of dystonia which is characterized by the unintentional movement of a group of muscles when another set of muscles is attempted to move.  

When to visit a doctor?  

If one experiences involuntary muscle contractions, or the symptoms mentioned above of athetosis, consult the healthcare provider.   


What causes athetosis? 

Athetosis is usually genetic. It may also signify specific neurological conditions such as a stroke or trauma. Athetosis can also be brought on by: 

  1. Disorders of the basal ganglia: In most cases, athetosis symptoms may result from diseases or injuries to the basal ganglia, a portion of the brain. The basal ganglia are in charge of regulating postural changes and muscular movements. Uncoordinated muscular movements can happen when they cannot correctly manage nerve signals. Some illnesses like Wilson’s disease and Huntington’s disease cause damage to this area of the brain. 
  2. Birth challenges: A baby is more likely to develop athetosis if its air supply is cut off during birth. The brain can suffer harm from asphyxia or an oxygen shortage. Additionally, it restricts the flow of essential nutrients and raises dopamine levels in the brain.  
  3. Jaundice: High amounts of bilirubin after birth can harm the basal ganglia in a newborn. The blood-brain barrier that shields adults is underdeveloped at a younger age. Therefore, the bilirubin may be able to enter the brain and result in long-term harm. 
  4. Cerebral palsy: Damage to the brain or improper brain development is the cause of cerebral palsy. This impairment impacts a child’s capacity to govern muscular movement. Athetoid cerebral palsy (CP) is a type of CP primarily due to an injury to the basal ganglia. High bilirubin levels and hypoxia can also contribute to this kind of CP. 
  5. Toxicity of drugs: Drugs that raise dopamine levels in the brain have the potential to harm basal ganglia and result in athetosis symptoms. 
  6. Stroke: Adults who have experienced a stroke or trauma may also develop athetosis. These problems create brain damage that may hamper neurons. Signs and symptoms of athetosis and other movement disorders may result from this. 

What are the diagnostic methods for athetosis? 

Athetosis is rarely a problem of its own; it is a symptom of a disorder. The healthcare provider will therefore try to identify the underlying reason for the mobility problems so that the doctor can prescribe treatments accordingly. These treatments may help reduce or completely get rid of the athetosis symptoms. 

The doctor conducts a thorough medical background check, blood tests, scans of the brain and gross motor skills assessments to identify the root cause. 

Each of these tests is intended to assist the doctor in assessing the symptoms and ruling out any potential reasons. It could take some time before a diagnosis is made because many of the possible causes of athetosis have no conclusive tests. 

What are the treatment options for athetosis? 

The underlying cause of the movement issue will be the focus of treatment. If the underlying issue is cured, the accompanying symptoms ought to be lessened or cured altogether. 

Sometimes, treatments may be performed to manage the severity of the symptoms. Some of them are: 

  • Anti-dopamine drugs may be given. These medications lessen the impact of the hormone on the brain, thus working on the symptoms. 
  • Occupational therapy may be prescribed to restore some control over the movements. 
  • Botox injections may momentarily restrict uncontrollable muscular movements. 


Athetosis is not a disorder per se but a chronic sign of an underlying  illness. The abnormal muscle motions continue as long as the underlying cause does. Early illness diagnosis allows medical professionals to diagnose underlying conditions. One could also start getting treatment and occupational therapy. 

Those who have severe types of movement disorders need frequent caregiving. The writhing and uncontrollable muscle motions can make daily tasks challenging. Walking, standing, sitting, and feeding fall under this category. It’s crucial to remember that there are programmes out there that can boost independence and help with activities .

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 

Can athetosis be cured? 

Since athetosis is not a disease, it is curable if the underlying cause is addressed.  

How does occupational therapy help patients with athetosis? 

Occupational therapy helps the patients regain some control over their muscle movements to perform daily chores. 

Verified By Apollo Doctors
At Apollo, we believe that easily accessible, reliable health information can make managing health conditions an empowering experience. AskApollo Online Health Library team consists of medical experts who create curated peer-reviewed medical content that is regularly updated and is easy-to-understand.

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