Symptoms of Huntington’s Disease
People with Huntington’s disease not only experience physical changes, marked by a loss of movement control, but also cognitive and behavioral changes. The behavioral changes vary from patient to patient, but often include apathy, marked by a loss of motivation to start or finish activities. Patients may be irritable or depressed. They may lack inhibition and do or say things that one would normally find embarrassing.
Chorea is the most common involuntary movement problem in Huntington’s disease patients. It is characterized by involuntary jerking or writhing movements. It usually occurs during the early intermediate stage of the disease, several years after disease onset. Chorea diminishes at advanced stages of the disease, at which time dystonia (muscle spasms in the arms, head, or trunk) emerges.
Huntington’s disease also affects a person’s ability to communicate. A lot of patients with the disorder experience speech difficulties. Communication issues are more common in the later stages of the disease, although they also can be seen early on. Speech changes such as hoarseness in the voice, slurred words, the inability to control speech volume, and inappropriate pauses between words, are common in patients.
Delusions and Hallucinations
Delusions and hallucinations are among the psychiatric symptoms of Huntington’s disease. Delusions can be defined as false beliefs, while a hallucination is a sensory perception that is not real. Some environmental and behavioral adaptations can help manage delusions and hallucinations. If adaptions in day-to-day life are not sufficient, antipsychotic medications might be prescribed.
Frequent complications associated with Huntington’s disease include problems with eating and swallowing. Weight loss often is associated with the disease, so patients and their caregivers should seek professional advice to make sure they eat nutritious foods with a lot of calories that are easy to consume. A feeding tube may be an option for patients who are struggling with eating, drinking, and maintaining weight.
Other Psychiatric Issues
Huntington’s disease damages the brain, leading directly to psychiatric problems. In addition, patients may experience depression and anxiety in reaction to their diagnosis and the disease itself. They can develop well-defined syndromes such as major depressive disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as subtle changes in mood and personality including irritability or loss of interest. Most of these conditions can be treated with medication and behavioral interventions.
Motor problems predominate in Huntington’s disease, and it is common for patients to encounter issues with sexuality. Adults with this disease commonly face a loss of interest in sex. The behavioral changes that occur as part of the disease process can lead to a decreased libido. Less frequently, Huntington’s disease may also cause an increased sex drive and inappropriate sexual behavior.