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What is Saint Vitus' Dance?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2016
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Saint Vitus' Dance is an alternative name for the movement disorder Sydenham's chorea (chorea minor). This condition presents as jerky, uncoordinated movements of the face, feet, and hands, and sometimes the limbs. It is usually associated with acute rheumatic fever, an inflammatory disease caused by childhood infection by group A streptococcal bacteria, such as in scarlet fever or strep throat. The disease may also be associated with pregnancy and hyperthyroidism.

The name Saint Vitus' Dance comes from a Christian martyr who is the patron saint of dancers. In the late Middle Ages, worshipers in Germany and Latvia reportedly danced manically before Saint Vitus' statue to celebrate his feast day, and the movements associated with chorea minor were thought to resemble those of the dancers. The alternate name for the disease, Sydenham's chorea, is taken from its discoverer, 17th century English physician Thomas Sydenham.

Sydenham's chorea is one of many forms of chorea, or movement disorders. The word chorea is derived from the Greek word for "dance." The symptoms of all types of chorea are similar, though they may vary in intensity and duration.

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In addition to involuntary body movements, Saint Vitus' Dance may cause headaches, speech disorders, muscle weakness, slowed cognition, and behavioral changes. Sometimes behavioral changes present before abnormal movement. The diesease typically has an acute onset and disappears on its own after a few months. Milder forms of the symptoms may persist for years, however. The motor symptoms of Saint Vitus' Dance do not affect the patient when he or she is asleep.

Saint Vitus' Dance is treated first and foremost by addressing the streptococcal infection and completely eliminating it from the patient's system, usually with penicillin or an alternative antibiotic. Next, medication may be prescribed to treat the movement disorder. The antipsychotic haloperidol is a common choice, but it has potentially serious side effects. Alternative medications include anticonvulsants like carbamazepine, phenobarbitone, and valproic acid. Finally, treatment including steroids or immunoglobulins may be used to support the patient's immune system.

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