The 13 most dreadful neurological disorders…and the groups standing up to them

Neurology embodies some of the most dreadful diseases known to man. Every neurological disorder is disheartening, each characterised by unique frustrations for patients and their families. It is difficult to quantify the distress and misery these afflictions impose on their victims, and even harder to appreciate the despair and anguish they evoke in those who care for them.

Brain Art. Ars Electronica on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/arselectronica/7773544158

It is clearly hard to compare the impact of different neurological diseases. Some neurological disorders however stand out because of the consternation their names evoke, and the terror that follows in their wake. These diseases come with unimaginable physical and psychological burdens, and crushing demands on human and material resources. They impose either a debilitating morbidity, or a hasty mortality.

Neural pathways in the brain. NICHD on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nichd/16672073333

The nervous system ailments in the list below pose exacting therapeutic challenges, resistant as they are to all attempts at treatment or cure. This list sets out to emphasise the urgency for neuroscience to find a remedy for each of them, but it does not intend to belittle the horror of the disorders omitted from it. The choice of the number 13 is, sadly, self-evident. Here then are the top 13 most dreadful neurological disorders…all with gold links to the associations helping to defeat them.

Working Brain. Gontzal García del Caño on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/euskalanato/2052487054

Ataxia

Ataxia, in lay terms, is incoordination. This typically manifests as an unsteady gait and clumsiness. Ataxia converts all activities of daily living into burdensome chores. Whilst many types of ataxia are preventable or reversible, primary ataxias are progressive and carry a dismal outlook. In this category are Spinocerebellar ataxia (SCA)Friedreich’s ataxia, and Ataxia telangiectasia. You may read more about ataxia in these previous blog posts: The 43 spinocerebellar ataxias: the complete checklistsOld drugs, new roles?, and Will Riluzole really be good for cerebellar ataxia?

Brain tumours

Brain cancers hardly need any description. They are either primary, arising from the brain cells, or metastatic, spreading to the brain from other organs. Some primary brain cancers, such as meningiomas and pituitary tumours, are, relatively, treatable. Many others are unfortunately ominously malignant. The most dreadful in this category is surely the spine-chilling glioblastoma multiforme. You may check out these previous blog posts for more on these tumuors: Calming the rage of brain tumours: hope for a dreaded cancerMaggots, viruses and lasers: some innovations for brain tumoursand Are steroids detrimental to survival in brain tumours?

Peripheral neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy is ubiquitous in the neurology clinic. Neuropathy may result from reversible situations such as overindulgence in alcohol, uncontrolled diabetes, or Vitamin B12 deficiency. Neuropathy is often just a minor inconvenience when it manifests with sensory symptoms such as tingling and numbness. It may however be debilitating when it presents as limb paralysis, or complicated by major skeletal deformities. At the severe end of the spectrum of neuropathy are the hereditary forms such as Charcot Marie Tooth disease (CMT) and Familial amyloid polyneuropathy. Read more in these blog posts: The 52 variants of CMT… and their practical checklistsWhat’s looming at the frontline of peripheral neuropathy? and Will a pill really hold the cure for CMT?

Creutzfeldt Jakob disease (CJD)

CJD is the most iconic of the prion diseases. These disorders are as horrendous as they are enigmatic, defying categorisation as either infections or neurodegenerative diseases. More puzzling is their ability to be either hereditary and acquired. CJD exists in the classic or variant form, but both share a relentlessly rapid course, and a uniformly fatal end. You may read more in these previous blog posts titled Final day of ANA 2015- Prions center stage, and What are the links between Prion diseases and Parkinsonian disorders?

Dementia

Dementia is the scourge of longevity. Its name strikes terror because it insidiously colonises the cells that make us who we are. The most prominent dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, but it has equally dreadful companions such as Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB). Read more on dementia in these blog posts: How bright is the future for Alzheimer’s disease?Alzheimer’s disease: a few curious things, and Alzheimers disease and its promising links with diabetes.

Dystonia

Dystonia marks its presence by distressing movements and painful postures. At its most benign, dystonia is only a twitch of the eyelid (blepharospasm) or a flicker of one side of the face (hemifacial spasm). At the extreme end, it produces continuous twisting and swirling motions, often defying all treatments. The causes of dystonia are legion, but the primary dystonias stand out by their hereditary transmission and marked severity. Read more on dystonia in these blog posts: Why does dystonia fascinate and challenge neurology? and Making sense of the dystonias: the practical checklists.

Huntington’s disease (HD)

Huntington’s disease is an iconic eponymous neurological disorder which is marked by the vicious triumvirate of chorea, dementia, and a positive family history. It is an awful condition, often driving its victims to suicide. It is a so-called trinucleotide repeat expansion disorder, implying that successive generations manifest the disease at an earlier age, and in more severe forms (genetic anticipation). You may read more on HD in the previous blog post titled What are the prospects of stamping out Huntington’s disease? 

Motor neurone disease (MND) 

Also known as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), MND is simply devastating. Recognising no anatomical boundaries, it ravages the central and peripheral nervous systems equally. MND creeps up on the neurones and causes early muscle twitching (fasciculations) and cramps. It then gradually devours the nerves resulting in muscle wasting, loss of speech, ineffectual breathing, and impaired swallowing. It is no wonder that one of the most read post on this blog is titled Is neurology research finally breaking the resolve of MND? Other previous blog posts on MND are The emerging links between depression and MNDWhat is the relationship of MND and cancer?Does diabetes protect from MND?, and MND and funeral directors-really?

Multiple sclerosis (MS)

Multiple sclerosis is a very common disease, and gets more common the further away you get from the equator. It is the subject of intense research because of the devastation it foists on predominantly young people. Many drugs now ameliorate, and even seem to halt the progression of, relapsing remitting MS (RRMS). This is however not the case with primary progressive MS (PPMS) which, until the introduction of ocrelizumab, defied all treatments. There are many contenders vying for the cause of MS, but the reason nerves in the central nervous system inexplicably lose their myelin sheaths remains elusive. You may read more on MS in these blog posts: The emerging progress from the world of MS , What are the remarkable drugs which have transformed the treatment of MS?, and Is low vitamin D a cause of multiple sclerosis?

Muscular dystrophy 

Muscular dystrophy is an umbrella term that covers a diverse range of inherited muscle diseases. The most devastating, on account of its early onset and unrelenting progression, is Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). Adult neurologists will be more familiar with late onset muscular dystrophies such as Myotonic dystrophy and Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD). Read more on muscular dystrophy in these previous blog posts: How is neurology stamping out the anguish of Duchenne? and The A–Z of limb girdle muscular dystrophy (LGMD).

Rabies

Rabies, a rhabdovirus, is a zoonosis-it is transmitted to man by a wide range of animals such as dogs, bats, racoons, and skunks. It is the quintessential deadly neurological disease, popularised by the Steven King book and film, Cujo. Rabies manifests either as the encephalitic (furious) or the paralytic (dumb) forms. It wreaks havoc by causing irritability, hydrophobia (fear of water),  excessive sweating, altered consciousness, and inevitably death. Whilst there are vaccines to protect against rabies, a cure has eluded neuroscientists. This blog is yet to do justice to rabies but it is, at least, listed in the post titled What are the most iconic neurological disorders? But you could better by checking neurochecklists for details of the clinical features and management of rabies.

Spinal cord injury

Nothing is quite as heart-wrenching as the sudden loss of body function that results from spinal cord trauma. This often causes paralysis of both legs (paraplegia), or all four limbs (quadriplegia). This life-changing disorder is often accompanied by loss of control over bowel and bladder functions, and complications such as bed sores and painful spasms. You may read about the heroic efforts to treat spinal cord injury in the blog posts titled 6 innovations in the treatment of spinal cord injury and Head transplant, anyone?

Tetanus

Tetanus is an eminently preventable disease, now almost wiped out in developed countries by simple immunisation. It however continues its pillage and plunder in the developing world. It strikes young and old alike, often invading the body through innocuous wounds. Tetanus is caused by tetanospasmin and tetanolysin, the deadly toxins of the bacterium Clostridium tetani. The disease is classified as generalised, localised, cephalic, or neonatal tetanus. It is characterised by painful spasms which manifest as lockjaw (trismus), facial contortions (risus sardonicus), trunkal rigidity (opisthotonus), and vocal cord spasms (laryngospasm). The disease is awfully distressing and, when advanced, untreatable. It is a stain on the world that this avoidable disorder continuous to threaten a large number of its inhabitants. Check neurochecklists for more on the pathology, clinical features, and management of tetanus.

 

Light brain. Mario D’Amore on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/kidpixo/3470448888

As for all lists, this will surely be subject to debate, or perhaps some healthy controversy. Please leave a comment.

The emerging links between depression and MND

At first, it seemed like a single drop, but it is quickly turning into a trickle. The first inkling was a study of >1,700 people with motor neurone disease (MND) which was published in the journal Neurology titled Depression in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The authors found that depression is a very frequent diagnosis shortly before people are diagnosed with MND.

Von Vincent van Gogh - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Gemeinfrei, Link
Von Vincent van Gogh – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Gemeinfrei, Link

Surely a coincidence, I thought. A rogue finding, or even an understandable response to illness. My excuses were however debunked by another paper published soon after in the Annals of Neurology. Titled Psychiatric disorders prior to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the study found that depression may precede the diagnosis of MND by more than 5 years. The authors also report a high frequency of other psychiatric conditions preceding the diagnosis of MND, such as anxiety and psychosis

Depression. Nils Werner on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/130721398@N06/25363062843
Depression. Nils Werner on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/130721398@N06/25363062843

 

And just off the press is this report from Nature Communications titled Genetic correlation between amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and schizophrenia. What do we make of this? Is this just the tip of the iceberg? Surely more studies are needed before any firm conclusions. Perhaps this may lead to some early biomarker that enables neurologists to stop the process of progression to full blown MND. Perhaps.

https://pixabay.com/en/sky-clouds-rays-of-sunshine-414199/
https://pixabay.com/en/sky-clouds-rays-of-sunshine-414199/

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What are the new diseases emerging in neurology?

Medical futurists predict that scientific advances will lead to more precise definition of diseases. This will inevitably result in the emergence of more diseases and fewer syndromes. This case is made very eloquently in the book, The Innovators Prescription. Many neurological disorders currently wallow at the intuitive end of medical practice, and their journey towards precision medicine is painfully too slow. Neurology therefore has a great potential for the emergence of new disorders.

https://pixabay.com/en/pie-chart-diagram-statistics-parts-149727/
https://pixabay.com/en/pie-chart-diagram-statistics-parts-149727/

In the ‘good old days’, many diseases were discovered by individual observers working alone, and the diseases were named after them. In this way, famous diseases were named after people such as James Parkinson, Alois Alzheimer, and George Huntington. For diseases discovered by two or three people, it didn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to come up with double-barrelled names such as Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) or Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome (LEMS).

By uncredited - Images from the History of Medicine (NLM) [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11648572
By uncredited – Images from the History of Medicine (NLM) [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11648572
Today, however, new diseases emerge as a result of advances made by large collaborations, working across continents. These new diseases are named after the pathological appearance or metabolic pathways involved (as it will require an act of genius to create eponymous syndromes to cater for all the scientists and clinicians involved in these multi-centre trials). This is unfortunately why new disorders now have very complex names and acronyms. Take, for examples, chronic lymphocytic inflammation with pontine perivascular enhancement responsive to steroids (CLIPPERS) and chronic relapsing inflammatory optic neuropathy (CRION). It is a sign that we should expect new neurological diseases to be baptised with more descriptive, but tongue-twisting, names.

 

https://pixabay.com/en/letters-a-abc-alphabet-literacy-67046/
https://pixabay.com/en/letters-a-abc-alphabet-literacy-67046/

New disease categories emerge in different ways. One is the emergence of a new disorder from scratch, with no antecedents whatsoever. Such was the case with autoimmune encephalitis, a category which has come from relative obscurity to occupy the centre stage of eminently treatable diseases. I have posted on this previously as What’s evolving at the cutting edge of autoimmune neurology and What are the dreadful autoimmune disorders that plague neurology? Other disease categories form when different diseases merge into a completely new disease category, or when a previously minor diseases mature and stand on their own feet. These are the stuff of my top 8 emerging neurological disorders.

 

By Photo (c)2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 2.5, Link
By Photo (c)2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 2.5, Link

1. mTORopathy

This huge monster is ‘threatening’ to bring together, under one roof, diverse disorders such as tuberous sclerosis complex, epilepsy, autism, traumatic brain injury, brain tumours, and dementia. You may explore this further in my previous blog post titled mTORopathy: an emerging buzzword for neurology.

Merging bubbles. Charlie Reece on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/charliereece/777487250
Merging bubbles. Charlie Reece on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/charliereece/777487250

2. IgG4-related autoimmune diseases

This new group of neurological diseases is threatening to disrupt the easy distinction between several neurological disorders such as myasthenia gravis (MG), chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP), and Guillain Barre syndrome (GBS). It even includes the newly described IgLON 5 antibody disorder, something I blogged about as IgLON5: a new antibody disorder for neurologists. You may explore IgG4-related disorders in this paper titled The expanding field of IgG4-mediated neurological autoimmune disorders. 

By Aida Pitarch - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
By Aida PitarchOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

3. Anti-MOG antibody disorders

Now, neurologists have always known about MOG, mostly as a minor bit player, an extra, so to say. No more, it is now all grown up and matured. And the growth is fast and involves many inflammatory demyelinating disease of the CNS such as fulminant demyelinating encephalomyelitis and multiphasic disseminated encephalomyelitis. How far will it go?

http://thebluediamondgallery.com/a/autoimmune.html
http://thebluediamondgallery.com/a/autoimmune.html

4. Hepatitis E virus related neurological disorders

A field which is spurning new neurological disorders is neurological infections, and Hepatitis E virus (HEV) is in the forefront. We are now increasingly recognising diverse Hepatitis E related neurological disorders. HEV has now been linked to diseases such as Guillain Barre syndrome (GBS) and brachial neuritis. And the foremost researcher in this area is Harry Dalton, a hepatologist working from Cornwall, not far from me! And Harry will be presenting at the next WESAN conference in Exeter in November 2017.

By Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #5605.Note: Not all PHIL images are public domain; be sure to check copyright status and credit authors and content providers.English | Slovenščina | +/−, Public Domain, Link
By Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #5605.Note: Not all PHIL images are public domain; be sure to check copyright status and credit authors and content providers.English | Slovenščina | +/−, Public Domain, Link

5. Zika virus

Zika virus is another novel infection with prominent neurological manifestations. We are learning more about it every day, and you may check my previous blog post on this, titled 20 things we now know for certain about the Zika virus.

By Manuel Almagro Rivas - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47941048
By Manuel Almagro RivasOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47941048

6. Multisystem proteinopathy

Multisystem proteinopathy is a genetic disorder which affects muscles and bone, in addition to the nervous system. It is associated with Paget’s disease of the bone and inclusion body myositis, with implications for motor neurone disease (MND) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Quite a hydra-headed monster it seems, all quite complex, and perhaps one strictly for the experts.

Hydra. Andrew Jian on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrew_jian/475479747
Hydra. Andrew Jian on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrew_jian/475479747

7. GLUT-1 deficiency syndromes

GLUT-1 stands for glucose transporter type 1. Deficiency of GLUT-1 results in impaired transportation of glucose into the brainGLUT-1 deficiency syndrome presents with a variety of neurological features such as dystonia, epilepsy, ataxia, chorea, and a host of epilepsy types. It starts in infancy and is characterised by a low level of glucose and lactic acid in the cerebrospinal fluid. Expect to hear more on this in the near future.

Sugar Cubes. David pacey on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/63723146@N08/7164573186
Sugar Cubes. David pacey on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/63723146@N08/7164573186

8. Progressive Solitary Sclerosis

And this is my favourite paradigm shifter. Neurologists often see people with brain inflammatory lesions and struggle to decide if they fulfil the criteria for multiple sclerosis (MS). The current threshold for concern is when there have been two clinical events consistent with inflammation of the nervous system, or their MRI scan shows involvement of at least two different sites of the nervous system. Well, dot counting may soon be over, going by this paper in Neurology titled Progressive solitary sclerosis: gradual motor impairment from a single CNS demyelinating lesion. The authors identified 30 people with progressive clinical impairment arising from a single inflammatory nervous system lesion. The authors were convinced enough to recommend the inclusion of this new entity, progressive solitary sclerosis, in future classifications of inflammatory disorders of the central nervous system. Move over progressive MS, here comes progressive SS. Neurologists will surely have their job cut out for them.

Solitary tree at Sunset. epcp on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/epcprince/3418260382
Solitary tree at Sunset. epcp on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/epcprince/3418260382

Do you have any suggestions of emerging neurological disorders? Please leave a comment

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PS. These disorders are all covered in neurochecklists

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Masitinib, a breakthrough drug shattering neurology boundaries

In the process of writing a blog post on the research findings altering neurological practice, my sight fell on the drug, Masitinib. I was completely unaware of this tyrosine kinase inhibitor, one of the promising drugs in the fight against multiple sclerosis (MS). We are likely to hear a lot more about Masitinib in MS in the coming months.

By Zeldj - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
By ZeldjOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Masitinib is however not flexing its muscles just in neuro-inflammation. On the contrary, it is seeking laurels far afield, in the realm of neuro-degeneration. I was indeed pleasantly surprised to find that researchers are studying the impact of Masitinib on two other horrible scourges of neurology. The first report I came across is the favourable outcome of a phase 3 trial of Masitinib in motor neurone disease (MND) or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The drug reportedly ‘reached its primary objectives‘ of efficacy and safety. In this trial, Masitinib was used as an add-on to Riluzole, the established MND drug. It’s all jolly collaborative at this stage, but who knows what threat Masitinib will pose to Riluzole in future! You may read a bit more on Masitinib and MND in this piece from Journal of Neuroinflammation.

By Capilano1 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
By Capilano1Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

The second report I came across is the potential of Masitinib in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). This is at the phase 2 trial stage, and already showing very good outcomes in people with mild to moderate AD. Masitinib was used as an add-on drug to the conventional AD medications Memantine, Donepezil, Galantamine and Rivastigmine. These drugs can therefore rest comfortably on their thrones…at least for now! You can read a bit more on Masitinib and AD in this article from Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics.

Alzheimer's Disease. Hamza Butt on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/141735806@N08/28007367952
Alzheimer’s Disease. Hamza Butt on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/141735806@N08/28007367952

The question however remains, why should one drug work well on such disparate diseases? I know, this feels like deja vu coming shortly after my last blog post titled Alzheimers disease and its promising links with diabetes. In that post I looked at the promise of the diabetes drug, Liraglutide, in the treatment of Alzheimers disease. I have however also reviewed this type of cross-boundary activity of drugs in my older posts, Will riluzole really be good for cerebellar ataxia? and old drugs, new roles? Perhaps Masitinib is another pointer that, as we precisely define the cause of diseases, they will turn out to be merely different manifestations of the same pathology. Food for thought.

Benjah-bmm27 assumed. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims). Public Domain, Link
Benjah-bmm27 assumed. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims). Public Domain, Link

 

As I said, this wasn’t the post I set out to write. So watch out for my next blog post, the major research outcomes altering neurological practice.

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What is the relationship of MND and cancer?

There are many sources of neurology information, as I listed in my previous post titled what are the most reliable neurology reference sources? These sources let us know what is in and what is out; what is breaking and what has gone stale. Keeping on top of the ever-shifting information the journals churn out is challenging, but interesting. This information is the life blood of The Neurology Lounge, and keeps neurochecklists current and reliable.

Reference tracker icon. Berto on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bertop/2485992973
Reference tracker icon. Berto on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bertop/2485992973

In the task of keeping level with neurological developments, I first go to the journal Neurology, one of the clear leaders of the pack. Check it out on twitter under its handle, @GreenJournal. Browsing through a recent issue, I  was struck by a paper titled Population-based risks for cancer in patients with ALS. The authors of this paper report that people with motor neurone disease (MND) appear to be protected from developing many cancers, including the notorious lung cancer. In contrast, they are at a higher risk of testicular and salivary gland cancer.

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Curious to know more, I looked for previous reports on this topic but I came out not any wiser. Older research have given conflicting results on the links between MND and cancer. Take this paper published in the International Journal of Cancer titled The risk of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis after cancer in U.S. elderly adults: a population-based prospective study. This found no links at all, as did another paper published in Journal of Neurology titled Prior medical conditions and the risk of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. On the other hand, other researchers found that people with MND were at a higher risk of cancer. An example is this paper titled The association between cancer and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, published in Cancer Causes and Control. This reported a link between MND and melanoma, and with tongue cancer. The bulk of the research before now however suggests that there is no link. Take this paper published in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis & Frontotemporal Degeneration, and titled Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and cancer: a register-based study in Sweden; the authors, led by Ammar al Chalabi, sounded an authoritative ring of finality when they said “our results provide no evidence for comorbidity of cancer and ALS“. Before now, that is!

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So, is the latest study bucking the trend? Does MND really protect against some cancers and predispose to others? What does this all mean for people with MND? Or is all this just a quirk of the statistics? Questions, questions. I suspect this paper has just re-opened a can of worms, and more studies will surely follow. And they will refute and confirm the findings in equal measure.

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For now, MND remains an enigma. You may explore it a bit more in my previous blog posts on the subject…and leave your thoughts behind in the comments box.

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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

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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

bicycle-saddle-791704_1920

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.

 

What are the most iconic neurological disorders?

Neurology is a broad specialty covering a staggering variety of diseases. Some neurological disorders are vanishingly rare, but many are household names, or at least vaguely familiar to most people. These are the diseases which define neurology. Here, in alphabetical order, is my list of the top 60 iconic neurological diseases, with links to previous blog posts where available.

 

1. Alzheimer’s disease

By uncredited - Images from the History of Medicine (NLM) [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11648572
By uncredited – Images from the History of Medicine (NLM) [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11648572

2. Behcet’s disease

By Republic2011 - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17715921
By Republic2011Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17715921

3. Bell’s palsy

By http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/69/f2/8d6c4130f4264b4b906960cf1f7e.jpgGallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/M0011440.html, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36350600
By http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/69/f2/8d6c4130f4264b4b906960cf1f7e.jpgGallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/M0011440.html, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36350600

4. Brachial neuritis

5. Brain tumours

6. Carpal tunnel syndrome

7. Cerebral palsy (CP)

8. Cervical dystonia

9. Charcot Marie Tooth disease (CMT)

By http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/66/09/4dfa424fe11bb8dc56b2058f04ba.jpgGallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0026141.html, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36578490
By http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/66/09/4dfa424fe11bb8dc56b2058f04ba.jpgGallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0026141.html, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36578490

10. Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP)

11. Cluster headache

12. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD)

By Unknown - http://www.sammlungen.hu-berlin.de/dokumente/11727/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4008658
By Unknownhttp://www.sammlungen.hu-berlin.de/dokumente/11727/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4008658

13. Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD)

By G._Duchenne.jpg: unknown/anonymousderivative work: PawełMM (talk) - G._Duchenne.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9701531
By G._Duchenne.jpg: unknown/anonymousderivative work: PawełMM (talk) – G._Duchenne.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9701531

14. Encephalitis

15. Epilepsy

16. Essential tremor

17. Friedreich’s ataxia

By Unknown - http://www.uic.edu/depts/mcne/founders/page0035.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3960759
By Unknownhttp://www.uic.edu/depts/mcne/founders/page0035.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3960759

18. Frontotemporal dementia (FTD)

19. Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS)

By Anonymous - Ouvrage : L'informateur des aliénistes et des neurologistes, Paris : Delarue, 1923, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28242077
By Anonymous – Ouvrage : L’informateur des aliénistes et des neurologistes, Paris : Delarue, 1923, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28242077

20. Hashimoto encephalopathy

21. Hemifacial spasm

22. Horner’s syndrome

By Unknown - http://ihm.nlm.nih.gov/images/B15207, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19265414
By Unknownhttp://ihm.nlm.nih.gov/images/B15207, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19265414

23. Huntington’s disease (HD)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Huntington#/media/File:George_Huntington.jpg
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Huntington#/media/File:George_Huntington.jpg

24. Idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH)

25. Inclusion body myositis (IBM)

26. Kennedy disease

27. Korsakoff’s psychosis

28. Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome (LEMS)

29. Leber’s optic neuropathy (LHON)

30. McArdles disease

31. Meningitis

32. Migraine

33. Miller-Fisher syndrome (MFS)

By J3D3 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34315507
By J3D3Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34315507

34. Motor neurone disease (MND)

35. Multiple sclerosis (MS)

36. Multiple system atrophy (MSA)

37. Myasthenia gravis (MG)

38. Myotonic dystrophy

39. Narcolepsy

40. Neurofibromatosis (NF)

41. Neuromyelitis optica (NMO)

42. Neurosarcoidosis

43. Neurosyphilis

44. Parkinson’s disease (PD)

45. Peripheral neuropathy (PN)

46. Peroneal neuropathy

47. Progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP)

48. Rabies

49. Restless legs syndrome (RLS)

50. Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA)

51. Stiff person syndrome (SPS)

52. Stroke

53. Subarachnoid haemorrhage (SAH)

54. Tension-type headache (TTH)

55. Tetanus

56. Transient global amnesia (TGA)

57. Trigeminal neuralgia

58. Tuberous sclerosis

59. Wernicke’s encephalopathy

By J.F. Lehmann, Muenchen - IHM, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9679254
By J.F. Lehmann, Muenchen – IHM, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9679254

60. Wilson’s disease

By Carl Vandyk (1851–1931) - [No authors listed] (July 1937). "S. A. Kinnier Wilson". Br J Ophthalmol 21 (7): 396–97. PMC: 1142821., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11384670
By Carl Vandyk (1851–1931) – [No authors listed] (July 1937). “S. A. Kinnier Wilson“. Br J Ophthalmol 21 (7): 396–97. PMC: 1142821., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11384670

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The Neurology Lounge has a way to go to address all these diseases, but they are all fully covered in neurochecklists. In a future post, I will look at the rare end of the neurological spectrum and list the 75 strangest and most exotic neurological disorders.