'St Vitus Dance is a disease named after
a child martyr who died in 3oo AD and is the
popular name for chorea. The main features are
uncontrolled and involuntary muscle movements
with facial contortions and jerking body and
limbs. The following description comes from a
1935 edition of a medical book first published in
the 1890s and reflects the limited professional
knowledge at that time about the cause, effect
and treatment of this unfortunate condition.
In the late nineteenth-century it was thought
to mainly affect white females, especially young,
excitable girls aged 10 to 15 and was rarely
found among "the Negro and native races of
America". 'School-made chorea was said
to affect bright, intelligent and active-minded
girls who, stimulated by parents and teachers,
were anxious to do well at school. Other possible
causes mentioned were infectious diseases such as
scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, gonorrhea,
congenital syphilis, puerperal fever and
tonsillitis. Also considered was a history of
rheumatism in the family as well as imitation,
worry, fright and grief, injury or minor surgery.
Attacks usually lasted eight to ten weeks and
were often first noticed by increasing clumsiness.
Mild cases didn't affect the muscles or speech
very much but patients tended to cry a lot,
suffered from nightmares and were "fidgety".
Severe cases couldn't talk, dress or feed
themselves. The third and worst form was maniacal
chorea, chorea insaniens. This usually developed
during pregnancy and could lead to fatal
inflammation of the heart, murmurs from a faulty
mitral valve, inflammation of the brain,
blindness or a stroke.
Survivors could be left with muscle pain, a
weak arm or leg causing a limp, bad temper, poor
concentration, hallucinations, acute melancholia
(depression) and a change of character. The worst
cases were sent to an asylum.
The disease is now known to occur if infection
from a streptocoecal throat reaches the brain.
Fortunately, since antibiotics were introduced in
the 1940s, cases are rare today.