Early Controversies over Athetosis: I. Clinical Features, Differentiation from other Movement Disorders, Associated Conditions, and Pathology

  • Douglas John Lanska


Background: Since the description of athetosis in 1871 by American neurologist William Alexander Hammond (1828-1900) the disorder has been a source of controversy, as were many aspects of Hammond’s career. 

Methods: Review of controversies in the semi-centennial since the description of athetosis. 

Results: Hammond struggled to establish athetosis as a distinct clinic-pathological entity, and had successfully predicted the striatal pathology in his initial case (albeit somewhat serendipitously).  Athetosis was, nevertheless, considered by many neurologists to be a form of post-hemiplegic chorea or part of a continuum between chorea and dystonia. European neurologists, and particularly the French, initially ignored or discounted the concept. Additional controversies arose over whether the movements persisted during sleep, whether athetosis was, or could be, associated with imbecility or insanity, and how it should be treated.

Discussion: Some controversies concerning athetosis served to identify areas where knowledge was insufficient to make accurate statements, despite prior self-assured or even dogmatic statements to the contrary.  Other controversies illustrated established prejudices, even if these biases were often only apparent with the greater detachment of hindsight.