Neurologists spend most of their time diagnosing benign conditions which are curable or treatable, or at least people learn to live with. Every now and then we see people with startling symptoms such as coma, convulsions, neck stiffness, or paralysis. These are obviously concerning to patients and their families who have a foreboding of diseases such as meningitis, epilepsy, and stroke. Serious as these disorders are, they at least announce themselves and show their hands. Many other neurological symptoms unfortunately give no hint of the serious diseases that follow in their trail. That is when things get a bit tricky.
What are these seemingly benign symptoms which jolt neurologists out of their blissful complacency? What are these red flag symptoms that pretend they are grey? Here are my 7 deceptively ominous neurological signs everyone should know about.
7. A numb chin
This must be the most deceptive sinister symptom in neurology. Not many people will rush to their doctors to complain about a numb chin, but it is a symptom that makes neurologists very nervous. This is because the chin gets its sensory supply from the mandibular branch of the fifth cranial nerve, also called the trigeminal nerve because it has three branches. And neurologists know that, for some bizarre reason, cancers from other parts of the body occasionally send deposits to this nerve. The numb chin syndrome is therefore not to be treated lightly.
6. Muscle twitching
OK, don’t panic yet. We have all experienced this; a flickering of an overused and tired muscle; a twitching of the odd finger; the quivering of the calf muscles in older people. Neurologists call these fasciculations, and they are only a concern if they are persistent, progressive, and widespread. And also usually only if the affected muscles are weak. In such cases neurologists worry that fasciculations are the harbingers of sinister diseases, particularly motor neurone disease (MND), better known in America as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig disease. Many people with muscle twitching will however have nothing seriously wrong with them, and many will be shooed out of the consulting room with the label of benign fasciculations syndrome (we love our syndromes, especially when they are benign). There are many other causes of fasciculations, but MND is clearly the most sinister of them all.
5. Transient visual loss
Neurologists often ask people with headache if their vision blurs or disappears for brief periods of time. These visual obscurations are not as dramatic as the visual loss that accompanies minor strokes or transient ischaemic attacks (TIAs). Visual obscurations affect both eyes and last only a few seconds. They are the result of sudden but brief increases in an already elevated pressure in the head. This may occur with relatively benign conditions such as idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH), but it may also portend a serious disorder such as a brain tumour.
4. Sudden loss of bowel or bladder control
Loss of control down there would surely concern many people, but often not with the urgency it deserves. There are many non-neurological causes of bowel or bladder incontinence, but a sudden onset suggests that it is arising from the nervous system. The worrying diagnoses here are spinal cord compression and spinal cord inflammation (transverse myelitis). These disorders are often associated with other symptoms such as leg stiffness and weakness, but I really wouldn’t wait until these set in before I ask to see a neurologist.
3. Saddle anaesthesia
Whilst we are on the topic of things down there, a related sinister symptom is loss of sensation around the genitals and buttocks, something your doctor will prudently call saddle anaesthesia. This arises when the nerves coming off the lower end of the spinal cord, collectively called the cauda equina, are compressed. The unpalatable condition, cauda equina syndrome (CES), worries neurologists because the compression may be due to a tumour in the spinal canal.
PS: The bicycle saddle is an apt analogy, but if you prefer horse riding, below is an alternative image to soothe your hurt feelings.
2. A painful droopy eyelid
A droopy eyelid is a deceptively benign symptom which worries neurologists. This symptom, which neurologist prefer to call ptosis, is particularly concerning if it is accompanied by double vision. One worrying disorder which causes ptosis is myasthenia gravis (MG), and this presents with ptosis on both sides. More sinister is ptosis which is present only on one side, particularly if it is painful. This may be caused by brain aneurysms, especially those arising from a weakness of the posterior communicating artery (PCOM) artery. As the aneurysm grows, it presses on the third cranial or oculomotor nerve, one of three nerves that controls the eyeballs and keeps the eyelids open. An aneurysm is literally a time-bomb in the brain as they wield the threat of bursting and causing a catastrophic bleeding around the brain. This makes ptosis an ominous, but also a helpful, neurological symptom.
There are many other causes of ptosis including Horner’s syndrome, so don’t panic yet but get that eyelid checked out if it refuses to straighten out.
1. Thunderclap headache
A thunderclap headache is a symptom that means exactly what it says on the label! Neurologists will ask if the onset felt as if one was hit by a cricket bat. Even though most people have never been so assaulted, almost everyone with thunderclap headache readily agree this is what it feels like. It is such a distressing symptom that it doesn’t strike the afflicted person (pun intended) that their doctors are more concerned about investigating them, then they are in curing their headache. They patient is rushed to the CT scanner, and then subjected to a lumbar puncture. The doctors then heave a huge sigh of relief when the spinal fluid shows no blood or blood products, reassured that the patient has not suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage (SAH) from a ruptured a brain aneurysm. The patient, who now has just another headache, is left to get to grips with their now, suddenly, very uninteresting symptom. There are many other causes of a thunderclap headache, but a ruptured aneurysm is the most sinister. If you develop a thunderclap headache, don’t wait to see a neurologist…just get to the nearest hospital!
PS: Don’t feel aggrieved if you are across the Pacific; it is also a thunderclap headache if it felt like being hit by a baseball bat!
Want to check out more ominous signs? Check out Smart handles and red flags in neurological diagnosis by the neurologist Chris Hawkes in Hospital Medicine.