Chapter 4-Physicians, Guide to the Management of HD
Irritability and Temper Outbursts
One of the most typical complaints we hear from HD families is concern
about irritability and temper outbursts. These signs can be present for a couple of reasons.
First, it is important to assess for depression when increased irritability
is reported. Oftentimes, irritability and temper outbursts diminish when a mood disorder is treated. Many times, however,
irritability or outbursts remain even in the absence of a mood disorder.
Examination of the underlying causes of irritability and temper outbursts
is helpful in diminishing the frequency and severity of these behaviors. Persons with HD are continually challenged by
previously routine tasks or activities that are experienced as overwhelming. HD results in a progressive loss of abilities that often "sneak up" on persons with HD. Several patients have confided
that "I didn't realize I could no longer do it."
Close attention should be paid to the signals, verbal or nonverbal,
that patients are upset or wanting something, so that they do not get to the stage of exploding before they receive attention.
Knowledge of the person and sensitivity to his needs means that some
situations can be anticipated and potential frustration defused. It may be possible to identify situations which trigger frustration
and either avoid them or provide diversional activities. An awareness of the person's capabilities is very important,
so that he is encouraged to be as independent as possible and allowed to take risks without risking constant exposure to failure.
Although this encouragement to maintain independence is not always
possible at work, it is critical to encourage in the home. The person with HD should be encouraged to do
things for himself and to participate in primary decision-making as long as possible, except perhaps in situations where safety
is an issue (i.e. driving or cooking). Family members should be responsible for providing a safe environment so that no person
is ever in danger. Remove dangerous implements, such as guns, from the house and have emergency numbers near the telephone.
Listed below are some general strategies for families to employ to
minimize irritability and some coping skills for temper outbursts.
TABLE 8: COPING STRATEGIES FOR IRRITABILITY AND TEMPER
- Assess your own expectations regarding the HD affected individual.
A family member may be unwilling or unable to accept the patient's new limitations.
- Try to keep the environment as calm and controlled as possible.
- Speak in a low, soft voice. Avoid confrontations and ultimatums.
Sit down and keep hand gestures quiet.
- Try to identify circumstances which trigger> irritability and
temper outbursts and avoid them.
- Redirect the HD person away from the source of anger.
- Learn to respond diplomatically, acknowledging the patient's irritability
as a symptom of frustration.
Chapter 5-Physicians, Guide to the Management of HD
Psychiatric Symptoms not Belonging to a Specific
Patients with Huntington's disease may suffer from a variety of emotional
symptoms which do not fit any specific psychiatric diagnosis, but may nevertheless be a source of distress and a focus of
treatment including irritability, anxiety and apathy.
Some of these symptoms are related to the disease itself, and others
can be seen as a response to changing circumstances, such as a patient who becomes anxious about going to the market because
her involuntary movements attract attention.
Patients with HD may undergo personality changes, becoming irritable,
disinhibited, or obsessional. In some cases these changes represent an accentuation, or coarsening of personality characteristics
the person already had. Other times they will be a radical departure from the patient's usual state, which can be very distressing
Families should be reassured, as patients can usually be helped by
better communication, environmental interventions, and judicious use of medications.
Irritability is a common complaint from persons with HD and
their families. It is often associated with a depressed mood, but may also result from a loss of the ability of the brain
to regulate the experience and expression of emotion.
Irritability in persons with HD may take the form of an increase
in the patients' baseline level of irritability, or there may be episodes of explosiveness as irritable responses to life
events become exaggerated in intensity and duration.
Other patients may not be irritable under most circumstances,
but will develop a kind of rigidity of thinking which will cause them to perseverate relentlessly on a particular desire or
idea, becoming progressively more irritable if their demands are not met. One woman, for example, insists on having ten or
twelve varieties of juice in the refrigerator at all times and was markedly irritable during a recent visit to the clinic.
Her husband had started the car to drive to the clinic and had refused to go back into the house to get her another glass
of juice. Hours later she was still dwelling on it and kept interrupting the interview to say that she wanted to go home to
have a drink.
Irritability in HD may have a variety of triggers and exacerbating
causes. It is important to understand it in context and avoid premature use of medications.
One must first understand exactly what the informant means by saying
the patient is irritable or agitated. Does the patient appear restless? Is the patient yelling or verbally abusive? Is there
potential for violence? Many factors can precipitate an irritable episode, such as hunger, pain, inability to communicate,
frustration with failing capabilities, boredom, and changes in expected routine.
Family members and caregivers should learn to respond diplomatically,
appreciating the patient's irritability as a symptom. Confrontations and ultimatums should be avoided if the issue is not
The environment should be made as calm and structured as possible.
Some families achieve this more easily than others. Family settings in which there are children and adolescents, unpredictable
working hours, noise, or general chaos may lead to irritability and aggressiveness in persons with HD. Caretaker and family
support groups can provide emotional support and are a forum for sharing strategies that members have found useful in their
When irritability is severe, or enduring, or is expressed physically,
patients are often described as agitated. A great deal of overtreatment, particularly with neuroleptics, stems from continuous
use of a drug for an episodic problem. It is always necessary to revisit the situation and see whether the drug has
actually reduced the frequency of outbursts. For episodic outbursts, success often results from combining drug therapy with
a careful analysis of the context and precipitants of the outburst.
Nevertheless, we have found a number of medications helpful in treating
enduring irritability. Patients may respond to antidepressants, particularly the SSRIs (sertraline, fluoxetine, and paroxetine)
even if they do not meet all the criteria for major depression.
The optimal doses for treating irritability are not known but one
should start at a low dose and increase gradually as in the treatment of depression (see table 13). These agents may be particularly
useful when the irritability seems tied to obsessions and perseveration on a particular topic.
TABLE 16: COPING STRATEGIES FOR IRRITABILITY
- Restructure the person's expectations and responsibilities to manage
frustration. The environment should be as calm and structured as possible.
- Respond diplomatically, acknowledging the irritability as a symptom.
Confrontations and ultimatums should be avoided unless the issue is crucial.
- Try to identify circumstances which trigger temper outbursts, and
redirect the person away from the source of anger.
- Family and caretaker support groups can provide valuable emotional
support and are good places to learn and share effective strategies.
As in the treatment of depression, improvement may not occur for several
weeks. Mood stabilizers such as divalproex sodium and carbamazepine have also been helpful and could be administered as outlined
for bipolar disorder (see table 15).
Low dose neuroleptics may be helpful, particularly the newer, "atypical"
ones which have fewer side effects. Long-acting benzodiazepines, such as clonazepam (Klonopin), starting at low doses, e.g.
0.5mg/day, have also been helpful. The clinician must carefully
monitor patients treated with these agents, as overdosing can lead to falls or aspiration.