7 ominous signs that suggest you need to see a neurologist

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.

Ominous. Ankakay on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ankakay/4101391453
Ominous. Ankakay on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ankakay/4101391453

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

By Henry Vandyke Carter - Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See "Book" section below)Bartleby.com: Gray's Anatomy, Plate 784, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=531758
By Henry Vandyke CarterHenry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See “Book” section below)Bartleby.com: Gray’s Anatomy, Plate 784, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=531758

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

Scott Maxwell on freestockphotos. http://www.freestockphotos.biz/stockphoto/9747
Scott Maxwell on freestockphotos. http://www.freestockphotos.biz/stockphoto/9747

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.


By BLW - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1956552
By BLW – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1956552

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.

By Cumulus z niderlandzkiej Wikipedii, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3167579
By Cumulus z niderlandzkiej Wikipedii, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3167579

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

By © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24189896
By © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24189896

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!

Baseball bat in sun. Peter Chen on Flikr https://www.flickr.com/photos/34858596@N02/3239696542
Baseball bat in sun. Peter Chen on Flikr https://www.flickr.com/photos/34858596@N02/3239696542


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.


Keeping up with the latest practical guidelines in neurology

Neurologists breathe guidelines. And they churn them out at a breathtaking pace. It is extremely difficult keeping up with what’s in, what’s out, and what’s back in again! Often the new guidelines add nothing new, or the important points are buried in sheafs of text justifying the guidelines.

But we can’t get away from them. How then do neurologists keep up, short of becoming paranoid? By becoming obsessive! In developing neurochecklists I had no idea keeping up with the guidelines would be a challenging task because they are released in quick succession. I have looked back to see which are the latest practical guidelines, released in the last 12 months or so. Here they are by disease… but be quick before the guideline-masters revise them…again!


The American Academy of Neurology (AAN) and the American Epilepsy Society published their 1st seizure management guidelines in Neurology. Among the key recommendations are to inform patients of a 2-year recurrence risk of 21-45%, and that a nocturnal seizure is among the usual culprits that increase the risk. The vexing question of whether to treat a 1st unprovoked seizure remains that-vexing.

Not to be outdone, the International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE) released it’s evidence-based guidelines and recommendations for the management of infantile seizures. Published in Epilepsia in late 2015, it shows that Levetiracetam is tops for both focal and generalised seizures. It also confirmed the  hard-earned place of Stiripentol alongside Valproate and Clobazam for Dravet syndrome. It is open access so well-worth a detailed look.


Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD)

Steroids are now standard treatment in Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy (DMD). A recent practice guideline update on corticosteroids in Duchenne’s highlights this, and it also indicates the strength of evidence for the different benefits. There is Level B evidence that steroids improve strength and lung function, and Level C for  delaying scoliosis and cardiomyopathy. Enough to encourage any doubters out there.

Facio-scapulo-humeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD)

Not one I thought had guidelines, but this FSHD diagnosis and management guidelines turned out to be quite useful. The guidelines address four key areas-diagnosis, predictors of severity, surveillance for complications, and treatment. And if you like flow charts, there is an excellent one here. A lot of helpful tips here for example, subjects with large D4Z4 gene deletions are more prone to earlier and more severe disability, and these patients should be reviewed by a retinal specialist.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) 

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is one of the most shifty conditions when it comes to guidelines, both diagnostic and management. Take the latest NICE MS guidelines, 39 pages long. All sensible stuff mind you, with time-restricted targets such as 6 weeks for a post-diagnosis follow-up, and 2 weeks to treat a relapse. Mind you, just to keep neurologists on their toes!

MS diagnosis and follow up is often the game of counting lesions on MRI scans. The question of what to count, and when to do so, is addressed in the recent MAGNIMS MS consensus guidelines. More recommendations than guidelines, these did not challenge the sacrosanct MacDonald criteria for dissemination in time, but tinker with dissemination in place. They suggest, for example, that optic nerve lesions be counted. The MAGNIMS consensus guidelines on the use of MRI goes on to stipulate when and how to count lesions throughout the course of MS. Not an easy bedtime read.

Not far behind MAGNIMS, the Association of British Neurologists (ABN) released their revised 2015 guidelines for prescribing disease-modifying treatments in MS. The guidelines classify DMT’s by efficacyAlemtuzumab and Natalizumab triumphing here. We also learn which DMTs to use in different patient groups.

Finally, Neurology published guidelines on rehabilitation in MS. Unfortunately there are quite a few qualifying ‘possibles‘ and ‘probables‘ which water down the strength of most of the recommendations. But what else do we have to go by?

Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP)

The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry (JNNP) published a review of CIDP in February 2015. It covers everything ”from bench to bedside”, but heavily skewed towards the former. It confirms that CIDP is a “spectrum of related conditions”, great news for splitters, and disappointing for lumpers. I personally struggle with the concepts of sensory and focal CIDP, have never diagnosed CANOMAD, but never tire of listening to Michael Lunn on VEGF, or be fascinated by the links between CIDP and POEMS syndrome. The review, an editors choice, is open access, and is backed by the authority of Richard Hughes; you really have no choice but to read it!

Unruptured intracranial aneurysms

The America Stroke Association (ASA) published new guidelines on management of unruptured aneurysms in a June 2015 issue of Stroke. It gives a comprehensive review of cerebral aneurysms, addressing the “presentation, natural history, epidemiology, risk factors, screening, diagnosis, imaging and outcomes from surgical and endovascular treatment“. It also suffices for a review article. Some recommendations are easily overlooked such as counsel against smoking and monitor for hypertension (evidence level B). Some important recommendations however have weak evidence, for example surveillance imaging after endovascular treatment (evidence level C).

The guidelines still advocate screening if there are 2 or more affected first degree family members. (I confess my threshold is lower than this). The extensive list of at-risk conditions for aneurysms include the usual suspects such as adult polycystic kidney disease and fibromuscular dysplasia. New culprits (at least to me) are microcephalic osteodysplastic primordial dwarfism, Noonan syndrome, and α-glucosidase deficiency.


CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36822177
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36822177

The American Stroke Association (ASA), along with the American Heart Association (AHA), released their guidelines for the management of spontaneous intracerebral haemorrhage in 2015. There are several additional recommendations to the previous guidelines; these include the recommendation to control hypertension immediately from onset to prevent recurrent haemorrhage.

The ASA/AHA also published their updated guidelines on endovascular stroke therapy in 2015. To to show how important this treatment has become, the debate now is whether to use thrombectomy alone, or after thrombolysis. And the winner is…to use thrombectomy after thrombolysis. The eligibility checklist for endovascular therapy with a stent retriever is thankfully quite short.

Concussion and traumatic brain injury (TBI)

Concussion is a very topical issue, what with Will Smith as Bennett Omalu in the recent movie aptly titled… Concussion. I have previously posted on the effect of celebrities on neurology, but this here is the serious stuff.  Unlike most guidelines, these clinical practice guidelines for concussion/mild traumatic brain injury and persistent symptoms is not open access. Published in Brain Injury, I could only peruse the abstract, and this mentions 93 recommendations! Tempting however is it’s breadth, addressing everything from post-traumatic headache to sleep disturbance; from vestibular to visual dysfunction.

Friedreich's ataxia (FA)

OK, I confess these guideline are from 2014, a bit dated. But how often does one think ‘guidelines’ in the context of Friedreich’s ataxia. Furthermore, this Consensus clinical management guidelines for Friedreich ataxia is open access! Published in Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases, they are the product of 39 experts, and consist of 146 recommendations! They cover everything from sleep, spasticity, and scoliosis to diabetes, dysphagia, and dysarthria. I bet you don’t enquire about restless legs syndrome (RLS) in your patients with FA!

Motor neurone disease (MND)

And hot off the press are the NICE guidelines on motor neurone disease (MND). One thing to mention is its sheer volume- 319 pages long, and containing 123 recommendations! The guidelines targets every aspect of MND care, and it’s futile trying to master it all. Each specialist can really only pick and choose which aspect is relevant to them. There is a lot of balancing of clinical and economic benefits, and this is reflected by questions such as “what are the most clinically- and cost-effective methods of maintaining nutrition…?” The guidelines address several long-standing issues such as the clinically appropriate timing for placing PEG tubes. Whether they add anything really new is however debatable.


Do you have a recent guideline or update to share? Please leave a comment.