Chorea is a movement disorder that occurs in many different diseases and conditions. Dozens of genetic conditions, autoimmune and infectious diseases, endocrine disorders, medications and even pregnancy can have chorea as a symptom. Treatment is based on cause of the chorea.
Chorea is a movement disorder that causes involuntary, irregular, unpredictable muscle movements. The disorder can make you look like you’re dancing (the word chorea comes from the Greek word for “dance”) or look restless or fidgety.
Chorea is a movement problem that occurs in many different diseases and conditions. Chorea itself isn’t life-threatening, but it could be a sign of a neurological disease such as Huntington’s disease. Doctors can prescribe medication to control the abnormal muscle movements. Depending on the underlying cause, chorea may be temporary or be ongoing and get worse over time.
At least two other movements related to chorea are seen in neurological diseases.
No one knows for sure how many people experience chorea. Chorea is usually a symptom of another disorder. About 30,000 people in the United States have Huntington’s disease (a genetic condition that causes chorea). Doctors estimate another 200,000 people have a risk of developing Huntington’s disease because their parents have the genetic condition. Chorea is the most common symptom of Huntington’s disease.
In the United States, about 4,000 kids a year develop Sydenham chorea after having rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is a serious complication of untreated strep throat. Girls are more likely than boys to get rheumatic fever. It usually occurs between 5 and 15 years of age.
Chorea can occur in people of all ages. However, certain groups of people have an increased risk, including:
Chorea is a neurological symptom that originates in an area of the brain called basal ganglia, which are collections of nerve cells deep inside the brain that control movement. Dozens of genetic conditions, autoimmune diseases, metabolic disorders, infections and medications can affect basal ganglia and lead to the onset of chorea.
The most common causes of chorea are:
The symptoms of chorea are much the same no matter what caused the movement disorder. The most common signs of chorea are:
Because so many conditions and disorders can cause chorea, your doctor will ask a range of questions about your family history, the medications you take, and any symptoms you’re having besides uncontrollable movements. Your doctor will also conduct a physical exam and ask how often and how long your uncontrolled muscle movements have been happening and whether they get worse during times of stress.
To determine the cause of chorea, your doctor may order:
If you have irregular muscle movements that you can’t control, you should see your doctor. Your risk of chorea is higher if you have an autoimmune disease, a family history of Huntington’s disease, or if you’ve had rheumatic fever.
Some people may not be aware of their chorea; others may view their mild symptoms simply as a nuisance or perhaps as a social embarrassment. However, if your chorea is severe or disabling or interferes with the quality of your life, you should see your doctor for treatment.
The type of treatment depends on what is causing the movement disorder.
Deutetrabenazine and tetrabenazine can cause suicidal thoughts and actions in people with Huntington’s disease. Before taking these drugs, it’s very important to tell your doctor if you’re depressed. People who have a history of depression should not take these medications.
Taking corticosteroids for a long time can weaken your bones and lead to a condition called osteoporosis. People have also reported weight gain and high blood pressure after long-term use of corticosteroids.
All medications have potential side effects. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of all medications considered to treat your chorea. You and your doctor can decide which medications or treatment plan may be best suited for you based on your symptoms and the cause of the chorea.
Depending on the cause of chorea, complications can be severe. Huntington’s disease is an ongoing disease that gets worse over time and has no cure. Although there is no cure for lupus, doctors can help you manage the disease with medications. Children who develop Sydenham chorea after rheumatic fever usually recover without long-term medical problems.
Only a doctor can help you relieve the symptoms of chorea. You should talk to your doctor about medications that can control the muscle movements.
You can’t prevent some of the diseases and conditions that cause chorea, such as Huntington’s disease and lupus. To avoid rheumatic fever, children with a sore throat should get tested for strep. If your child’s doctor prescribes antibiotics for strep throat, be sure to take them as directed and finish all the medicine.
The outlook depends on what’s causing the involuntary muscle movements. People with Huntington’s disease can live 15 to 25 years after they develop symptoms. The condition slowly gets worse over time and makes it very difficult to do everyday activities like dressing, bathing and eating.
Children who develop Sydenham chorea after rheumatic fever usually recover within 2 years. Some children may have lingering behavioral or emotional issues, such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). These issues can last a lifetime.
Chorea itself usually can be managed with currently available treatments.
You should call your doctor right away if you notice any unusual muscle movements or tics. Although you may not have chorea, it’s important to get it checked out to determine what’s causing the movements.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/17/2020.
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