What Is Chorea?

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Chorea is a type of involuntary movement characterized by recurrent writhing, twisting, or jerking movements of any part of the body. It can occur due to certain neurological conditions, systemic illnesses that affect the brain, or as a side effect of medication. 

Chorea is considered a symptom of disease, and not an independent condition. It is generally one of several symptoms, and it rarely occurs on its own. If you have chorea, you will need a thorough medical evaluation to identify the underlying cause.

Chorea can often be managed with medication, and the underlying cause usually needs to be treated as well. 

Chorea is a type of involuntary muscle movement

Ilya Burdun / Getty Images

Chorea Symptoms

You can have a number of movement patterns with chorea. While chorea can manifest with a variety of physical motions, you may notice that you specifically have only a few types of movements and that it typically affects only certain parts of your body.

As the underlying condition progresses, you can start to experience the movements more frequently, you can have movement patterns of chorea that you didn’t experience before, and they can affect additional areas of your body. 

New-onset chorea due to a medical condition might occur unexpectedly, infrequently, and for a few seconds or minutes at a time. As the condition worsens, you can experience chorea almost all the time.

Chorea that occurs as a drug side effect can be intense right when it begins and may occur several times a day and/or for prolonged periods of time. 

Symptoms that are considered to be chorea include: 

  • Fidgeting involuntarily 
  • Grasping an object and being unable to let go
  • Abrupt, interrupted speech
  • Brief muscle jerking of the face, arms, legs, neck, or trunk

A key characteristic of chorea is that it is erratic and irregular, and it is not rhythmic or pulsing. It can appear to “flow” from one muscle to another or from one part of the body to another. It is not associated with changes in consciousness.

Chorea is a distressing symptom. You may feel upset about the fact that you can’t control your body. When you have chorea, you could be concerned about the implications in terms of underlying conditions, and you may also be self-conscious about having involuntary movements in front of other people.

Associated Symptoms

The conditions that cause chorea often also cause other movements or neurological symptoms along with chorea. The presence of absence of these associated symptoms can help guide your diagnosis.

Associated symptoms that commonly occur with chorea include:

  • Athetosis (slow, involuntary writhing movements)
  • Ballismus or hemiballismus (spontaneous involuntary movements)
  • Cognitive decline (trouble thinking) or dementia
  • Tremors
  • Spasms
  • Muscle twitches
  • Weakness
  • Sensory changes

Many of these associated symptoms appear similar to chorea and to each other. They might each feel different from each other, however.

If it’s possible, try to take a video of the different types of movements that you experience so you can show your doctor—because you are not likely to have all of them when you go in for your medical evaluation.

Complications 

Aside from being distressing, the involuntary movements of chorea can cause health problems or injuries. 

Adverse complications that can result from chorea include:

  • Swallowing problems, choking
  • Speech problems 
  • Muscle spasms and stiffness
  • Pain or discomfort 
  • Injury 

Getting treatment for your chorea—even if the treatment doesn’t cure the underlying cause—can help prevent some of these issues.

Causes 

Chorea can develop due to conditions that affect the brain. Although they are both uncommon, the conditions most commonly associated with chorea are Huntington’s disease and Sydenham chorea.

Conditions that can cause chorea include:

  • Huntington’s disease: A hereditary disease that causes gradually worsening dementia, loss of motor control, and chorea.
  • Sydenham chorea: This illness can develop in children after a group A beta-hemolytic streptococcal infection. It is associated with rheumatic fever and can last for several years after the infection has resolved. Sydenham chorea may resolve on its own. It is considered an autoimmune condition in which the immune system mistakenly attacks itself.
  • Medication side effect: Chorea can develop as a side effect of medications, especially medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease. 
  • Parathyroid hormone abnormality: Dysregulation of this hormone can result in high levels of calcium, which can accumulate in the brain, causing chorea.
  • Thyroid disease: Sometimes thyroid disease is associated with chorea. This is believed to be related to immune cells that affect thyroid hormones and also attack the brain.
  • Paraneoplastic: Rarely, cancerous tumors can produce substances that attack distant regions of the body. Some tumors can cause chorea by producing antibodies that attack the brain. 
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE): This autoimmune condition causes a number of symptoms, and in rare instances, it can cause chorea.
  • Chorea gravidarum: Chorea due to pregnancy is not common, and it generally resolves after delivery.
  • Brain damage: A stroke, brain tumor, injury, or infection can damage parts of the brain associated with movement, causing chorea. 

Brain Involvement 

Chorea can occur when there is a structural or functional problem with the basal ganglia and the thalamus, which are areas of the brain that control movement. The cause can be related to dysfunction of the neurotransmitters in these regions of the brain, especially dopamine, or to a structural issue.

The basal ganglia includes several structures in the brain—the caudate, globus pallidus, putamen, subthalamic nucleus, and the substantia nigra. These small structures work together to regulate the movement of the body. Damage can affect the structures of one or both sides of the brain.

However, damage or dysfunction of these structures does not always result in chorea and can cause other neurological or movement problems.

Diagnosis 

Generally, diagnosis of chorea is based on your symptom history and your doctor’s observation during your physical examination. Your doctor will do a thorough neurological and cognitive examination, which will help in identifying conditions that cause chorea.

A major component in the evaluation of chorea is the diagnosis of your underlying medical issue. This can include diagnostic testing. Your diagnostic tests would be directed by your medical history, your family history, and your physical examination. 

Some of the diagnostic tests you may need in the evaluation of the cause of chorea include:

  • Imaging if there is concern about a problem in the brain or cancer in any location of the body
  • A genetic test if there is a possibility that you could have Huntington’s disease
  • Hormone levels if you could have thyroid or parathyroid disease
  • Immune markers if you could have SLE or another autoimmune condition

Treatment 

There are several medications used to treat chorea. If you have a treatable underlying cause, such as thyroid disease or lupus, the treatment for the underlying condition may stop you from continuing to experience chorea. If your chorea is a side effect of medication, your doctor may stop or adjust the medication to manage your chorea.

Some medications can reduce the movements. You may need to use medication for the long term if you have an irreversible cause of chorea, such as Huntington’s disease or a stroke.

Medications used to treat chorea include:

  • Vesicular monoamine transporter type 2 (VMAT2) inhibitors: Tetrabenazine and deutetrabenazine are approved to treat chorea in Huntington’s disease, and valbenazine is used to treat certain movement disorders.
  • Medications that interact with dopamine receptors, including antipsychotics and pridopidine are often used to manage chorea.
  • Anti-epileptics and anti-glutamatergics are used off-label to manage this condition.

Deep brain stimulation is a procedure in which a stimulation device is implanted in the brain. In some situations, this method can be used to manage chorea when medication is not effective.

A Word From Verywell

Chorea is a very noticeable symptom that can occur as a result of several different conditions. You should see your doctor if you experience any type of involuntary movements, including chorea. You may undergo diagnostic tests as part of your evaluation.

Sometimes chorea resolves on its own, but you may need treatment for the underlying condition, as well as treatment to reduce the symptom of chorea.

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