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What are the symptoms of Rett syndrome?

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The first symptom of Rett syndrome is usually the loss of muscle tone, called hypotonia (pronounced hahy-poh-TOH-nee-uh).1 With hypotonia, an infant's arms and legs will appear "floppy."2

Although hypotonia and other symptoms of Rett syndrome often present themselves in stages, some typical symptoms can occur at any stage. Symptoms may vary among patients and range from mild to severe.3 

Typical Symptoms (may occur at any stage) can include:

  • Loss of ability to grasp and intentionally touch things
  • Loss of ability to speak. (Initially, a child may stop saying words or phrases that he or she once said; later, the child may make sounds, but not say any purposeful words.)
  • Severe problems with balance or coordination, leading to loss of the ability to walk. (These problems may start out as clumsiness and trouble walking. About 60%4 of those with Rett syndrome are still able to walk later in life; others may become unable to sit up or walk or may become immobile.)
  • Mechanical, repetitive hand movements, such as hand wringing, hand washing, or grasping
  • Complications with breathing, including hyperventilation and breath holding when awake
  • Anxiety and social-behavioral problems
  • Intellectual disability

In addition, a person with Rett syndrome may experience one or more of the following associated problems:

  • Scoliosis (pronounced skoh-lee-OH-sis), or curvature of the spine from side to side. (Approximately 80%4 of girls with Rett syndrome have scoliosis. In some cases, the curving of the spine can become so severe that the girls require surgery. For some, bracing relieves the problem, prevents it from getting worse, or delays or eliminates the need for surgery.)
  • Seizures. (These may involve the whole body, or they may be staring spells with no movement.)
  • Constipation and gastroesophageal (pronounced gas-stro-ih-sof-uh-JEE-uhl) reflux
  • Discomfort in the abdomen or gallbladder problems such as gallstones5
  • Cardiac or heart problems,6,7 usually problems with heart rhythm. (Some persons with Rett syndrome may have abnormally long pauses between heartbeats, as measured by an electrocardiogram, or they may experience other types of arrhythmia [pronounced uh-RITH-mee-uh].)
  • Trouble feeding oneself,8 swallowing, and chewing food. (In some cases, too, in spite of healthy appetites, girls with Rett syndrome do not gain weight or have trouble maintaining a healthy weight. As a result, some girls with Rett syndrome rely on feeding tubes.)
  • Disrupted sleep patterns at night (during childhood) and increased sleep (after age 5).9 (Some researchers10 suggest that problems with sleep are among the earliest symptoms of Rett syndrome and can appear between 1 and 2 months of age. Such problems can lead to sudden death during sleep.)
  • Excessive saliva and drooling2
  • Poor circulation in hands and legs2
  • Walking on toes or the balls of feet11
  • Walking with a wide gait (ataxia)11
  • Grinding the teeth (bruxism)11

Symptoms can vary from person to person and from one stage to the next. Symptoms may also improve in the “Plateau Phase” (see What are the types and phases?).


  1. Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network. (2012). Rett syndrome. Retrieved May 10, 2012, from http://rarediseasesnetwork.epi.usf.edu/arpwsc/learnmore/index.htm#rs External Web Site Policy [top]
  2. Medline Plus. (2012). Rett syndrome. Retrieved May 10, 2012, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001536.htm [top]
  3. International Rett Syndrome Foundation. (2008). About Rett syndrome. Retrieved May 10, 2012, from http://www.rettsyndrome.org/understanding-rett-syndrome/about-rett-syndrome External Web Site Policy [top]
  4. Kerr, A. M., Webb, P., Prescott, R. J., & Milne, Y. (2003). Results of surgery for scoliosis in Rett syndrome. Journal of Child Neurology, 18, 703–708. [top]
  5. Percy, A. K., & Lane, J. B. (2004). Rett syndrome: Clinical and molecular update. Current Opinions in Pediatrics, 16, 660–667. [top]
  6. Ellaway, C. J., Sholler, G., Leonard, H., & Christodoulou, J. (1999). Prolonged QT interval in Rett syndrome. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 80, 470–472. [top]
  7. Guideri, F., Acampa, M., DiPerri, T., Zapella, M., & Hayek, Y. (2004). Progressive cardiac dysautonomia observed in patients affected by classic Rett syndrome and not in the preserved speech variant. Journal of Child Neurology, 16, 370–373. [top]
  8. Percy, A. K., Dragich, J., & Schanen, C. (2003). Rett Syndrome: Clinical-Molecular Correlates. In G. Fisch (Ed.), Genetics and neurobehavioral disorders (pp. 391–418). Totowa, NJ: Humana Press. [top]
  9. Ellaway, C., Peat, J., Leonard, H., & Christodoulou, J. (2001). Sleep dysfunction in Rett syndrome: Lack of age-related decrease in sleep duration. Brain Development, Dec;23(Suppl 1). [top]
  10. Nomura, Y. (2005). Early behavior characteristics and sleep disturbance in Rett syndrome. Brain and Development, Nov;27(Suppl 1). [top]
  11. Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network. (2012). Rett syndrome. Retrieved May 10, 2012, from http://rarediseasesnetwork.epi.usf.edu/arpwsc/learnmore/index.htm#rs External Web Site Policy [top]

Last Updated Date: 01/28/2014
Last Reviewed Date: 01/14/2014
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