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Huntington Disease Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Fredy J Revilla, MD; Chief Editor: Selim R Benbadis, MD  more...
Updated: Jul 08, 2016


Huntington disease mutation carriers who have yet to develop clinical symptoms are most concerned with internal and relational issues (social, emotional, and self concerns) that are associated with the disease. These concerns remain throughout and do not increase in the subsequent stages of HD. Patients with HD stages 1-5 are most concerned with physical and functional issues caused by HD, with these concerns increasing as the disease progresses. Patients with early HD (stages 1 and 2) have increasing concerns about cognitive issues, and these concerns remain constant during moderate HD (stages 3 and 4). Patients with late-stage HD (stage 5) have a lack of cognitive concerns, presumably due to impaired insight.[5]

The clinical features of Huntington disease (HD) include a movement disorder, a cognitive disorder, and a behavioral disorder. Patients may present with one or all disorders in varying degrees.

Chorea (derived from the Greek word meaning to dance) is the most common movement disorder seen in HD.

Initially, mild chorea may pass for fidgetiness. Severe chorea may appear as uncontrollable flailing of the extremities (ie, ballism), which interferes with function.

As the disease progresses, chorea coexists with and gradually is replaced by dystonia and parkinsonian features, such as bradykinesia, rigidity, and postural instability, which are usually more disabling than the choreic syndrome per se.

In advanced disease, patients develop an akinetic-rigid syndrome, with minimal or no chorea. Other late features are spasticity, clonus, and extensor plantar responses.

Dysarthria and dysphagia are common. Abnormal eye movements may be seen early in the disease. Other movement disorders, such as tics and myoclonus, may be seen in patients with HD.

Juvenile HD (Westphal variant), defined as having an age of onset of younger than 20 years, is characterized by parkinsonian features, dystonia, long-tract signs, dementia, epilepsy, and mild or even absent chorea.

Cognitive decline is characteristic of HD, but the rate of progression among individual patients can vary considerably. Dementia and the psychiatric features of HD are perhaps the earliest and most important indicators of functional impairment.

The dementia syndrome associated with HD includes early onset behavioral changes, such as irritability, untidiness, and loss of interest. Slowing of cognition, impairment of intellectual function, and memory disturbances are seen later. This pattern corresponds well to the syndrome of subcortical dementia, and it has been suggested to reflect dysfunction of frontal-subcortical neuronal circuitry. (The so-called cortical dementias primarily involve the cerebral cortex and are associated with aphasia, agnosia, apraxia, and severe amnesia.)

Early stages of HD are characterized by deficits in short-term memory, followed by motor dysfunction and a variety of cognitive changes in the intermediate stages of dementia.[6, 7] These deficits include diminished verbal fluency, problems with attention, executive function, visuospatial processing, and abstract reasoning. Language skills become affected in the final stages of the illness, resulting in a marked word-retrieval deficit.

The behavioral disorder of HD is represented most commonly by affective illness.

Depression is more prevalent, with a small percentage of patients experiencing episodic bouts of mania characteristic of bipolar disorder.

Patients with HD and persons at risk for HD may have an increased rate of suicide.

Patients with HD also can develop psychosis, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, sexual and sleep disorders, and changes in personality.


Physical Examination

Most patients with HD have a mixed pattern of neurological and psychiatric abnormalities. Understanding of the clinical signs must take into account the fact that signs change during the course of the illness and that different patterns may be observed, depending on the age of onset.

Chorea is a characteristic feature of HD and, until recently, the disorder commonly was called Huntington chorea. Chorea, as defined by the World Federation of Neurology, is a state of excessive, spontaneous movements, irregularly timed, randomly distributed, and abrupt.

Severity of chorea may vary from restlessness with mild intermittent exaggeration of gesture and expression, fidgeting movements of the hands, and unstable dancelike gait to a continuous flow of disabling violent movements. Chorea in cases of HD usually is generalized.

Patients may incorporate involuntary choreiform movements into apparently purposeful gestures, a phenomenon referred to as parakinesia.

Ballism is characterized by large amplitude, usually proximal, flinging movements of a limb or body part. Ballism is considered to be a severe form of chorea by most authors.

Chorea may coexist with slower, distal, writhing, sinuous movements called athetosis; it then is described as choreoathetosis.

Chorea is less prominent in juvenile HD and in advanced stages of the illness.

Bradykinesia and akinesia are frequent features of HD and may explain some of the abnormalities of voluntary movement observed clinically.

Bradykinesia may be a major source of disability of voluntary movement, though it commonly is overshadowed by the hyperkinetic movement disorder.

Other parkinsonian signs, such as rigidity and postural instability, may be seen. Patients may become akinetic and rigid in the terminal stages of the illness.

Dystonia is defined as a syndrome of sustained muscle contractions, frequently causing twisting and repetitive movements or abnormal postures.

Mild dystonia, in combination with chorea, may give the writhing appearance of choreoathetosis.

Sustained dystonic posturing may result in contractures, immobility, and breakdown of skin.

Dystonia may be prominent in juvenile HD.

Eye movement abnormalities can be seen early in the disease.

Initiation of saccadic movements is slow and uncoordinated. Patients have difficulty suppressing head movements or blinking in order to break fixation and generate saccadic movements.

Smooth pursuit is interrupted by saccadic intrusions.

Patients are unable to inhibit saccades toward a peripheral stimulus when instructed to look in the opposite direction.

Tendon reflexes are variable in HD, ranging from reduced in some patients to pathologically brisk with clonus in other patients. The plantar response usually is flexor, but it may be extensor in advanced stages of the illness.

Other hyperkinesias, such as tics and myoclonus, may be seen in HD.

Dementia, depression, and other psychiatric manifestations may be seen at the time of examination as well.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Fredy J Revilla, MD Associate Professor of Neurology, Director, Movement Disorders Center, James J and Joan A Gardner Family Center Endowed Chair for Parkinson's Disease and Other Movement Disorders, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine; Staff Physician/Neurologist, Cincinnati Veterans Affairs Medical Center; Staff Physician/Neurologist, Huntington's Disease Clinic, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

Fredy J Revilla, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Society, Society for Neuroscience

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Jaime Grutzendler, MD Assistant Professor, Department of Neurology and Physiology, Northwestern University School of Medicine

Jaime Grutzendler, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, Society for Neuroscience

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Travis R Larsh Department of Neurology, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Chief Editor

Selim R Benbadis, MD Professor, Director of Comprehensive Epilepsy Program, Departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Tampa General Hospital, University of South Florida College of Medicine

Selim R Benbadis, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American Medical Association, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, American Clinical Neurophysiology Society, American Epilepsy Society

Disclosure: Serve(d) as a director, officer, partner, employee, advisor, consultant or trustee for: Cyberonics; Eisai; Lundbeck; Sunovion; UCB; Upsher-Smith<br/>Serve(d) as a speaker or a member of a speakers bureau for: Cyberonics; Eisai; Glaxo Smith Kline; Lundbeck; Sunovion; UCB<br/>Received research grant from: Cyberonics; Lundbeck; Sepracor; Sunovion; UCB; Upsher-Smith.

Additional Contributors

Robert A Hauser, MD, MBA Professor of Neurology, Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology, Director, USF Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Center, National Parkinson Foundation Center of Excellence, Byrd Institute, Clinical Chair, Signature Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience, University of South Florida College of Medicine

Robert A Hauser, MD, MBA is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American Medical Association, American Society of Neuroimaging, International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Society

Disclosure: Received consulting fee from Cerecor for consulting; Received consulting fee from L&M Healthcare for consulting; Received consulting fee from Cleveland Clinic for consulting; Received consulting fee from Heptares for consulting; Received consulting fee from Gerrson Lehrman Group for consulting; Received consulting fee from Indus for consulting; Received consulting fee from University of Houston for consulting; Received consulting fee from AbbVie for consulting; Received consulting fee from Adama.

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