No treatments can alter the course of Huntington's disease. But medications can lessen some symptoms of movement and psychiatric disorders. And multiple interventions can help a person adapt to changes in his or her abilities for a certain amount of time.
Medication management is likely to evolve over the course of the disease, depending on the overall treatment goals. Also, drugs to treat some symptoms may result in side effects that worsen other symptoms. Therefore, the treatment goals and plan will be regularly reviewed and updated.
Medications for movement disorders
Drugs to treat movement disorders include the following:
Tetrabenazine (Xenazine) is specifically approved by the Food and Drug Administration to suppress the involuntary jerking and writhing movements (chorea) associated with Huntington's disease. A serious side effect is the risk of worsening or triggering depression or other psychiatric conditions.
Other possible side effects include drowsiness, nausea and restlessness.
Antipsychotic drugs, such as haloperidol (Haldol) and chlorpromazine, have a side effect of suppressing movements. Therefore, they may be beneficial in treating chorea. These drugs may, however, worsen involuntary contractions (dystonia) and muscle rigidity.
Newer drugs, such as risperidone (Risperdal) and quetiapine (Seroquel), may have fewer side effects but still should be used with caution, as they may also worsen symptoms.
Other medications that may help suppress chorea include amantadine, levetiracetam (Keppra) and clonazepam (Klonopin). At high doses, amantadine can worsen the cognitive effects of Huntington's disease. It may also cause leg swelling and skin discoloration.
Side effects of levetiracetam include nausea, stomach upset and mood swings. Clonazepam may worsen the cognitive side effects of Huntington's disease and cause drowsiness. It also has a high risk of dependence and abuse.
Medications for psychiatric disorders
Medications to treat psychiatric disorders will vary depending on the disorders and symptoms. Possible treatments include the following:
- Antidepressants include such drugs as citalopram (Celexa, Lexapro), fluoxetine (Prozac, Sarafem) and sertraline (Zoloft). These drugs may also have some effect on treating obsessive-compulsive disorder. Side effects may include nausea, diarrhea, drowsiness and low blood pressure.
- Antipsychotic drugs — such as quetiapine (Seroquel), risperidone (Risperdal) and olanzapine (Zyprexa) — may suppress violent outbursts, agitation, and other symptoms of mood disorders or psychosis. However, these drugs may cause different movement disorders themselves.
- Mood-stabilizing drugs that can help prevent the highs and lows associated with bipolar disorder include anticonvulsants, such as valproate (Depacon), carbamazepine (Carbatrol, Epitol, Equetro) and lamotrigine (Lamictal). Common side effects include weight gain, tremor and gastrointestinal problems.
A psychotherapist — a psychiatrist, psychologist or clinical social worker — can provide talk therapy to help a person manage behavioral problems, develop coping strategies, manage expectations during progression of the disease and facilitate effective communication among family members.
Huntington's disease can significantly impair control of muscles of the mouth and throat that are essential for speech, eating and swallowing. A speech therapist can help improve your ability to speak clearly or teach you to use communication devices — such as a board covered with pictures of everyday items and activities. Speech therapists can also address difficulties with muscles used in eating and swallowing.
A physical therapist can teach you appropriate and safe exercises that enhance strength, flexibility, balance and coordination. These exercises can help maintain mobility as long as possible and may reduce the risk of falls.
Instruction on appropriate posture and the use of supports to improve posture may help lessen the severity of some movement problems.
When the use of a walker or wheelchair is required, the physical therapist can provide instruction on appropriate use of the device and posture. Also, exercise regimens can be adapted to suit the new level of mobility.
An occupational therapist can assist the person with Huntington's disease, family members and caregivers on the use of assistive devices that improve functional abilities. These strategies may include:
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- Handrails at home
- Assistive devices for activities such as bathing and dressing
- Eating and drinking utensils adapted for people with limited fine motor skills
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