Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological condition characterized by damage that’s caused by an erroneous attack by the immune system against the central nervous system — comprised of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. Due to this neurological damage, patients with MS can experience abnormal physical sensations such as Lhermitte’s sign.
Lhermitte’s sign (pronounced Ler-meets), also called Lhermitte’s phenomenon, is a sensation similar to an electric shock in the neck. It was named after Jacques Jean Lhermitte, a French neurologist, who described it in an MS patient in 1924.
In MS, this electrical sensation is considered a type of neuropathic (nerve) pain. About 40% of MS patients will experience Lhermitte’s at some point in the course of their disease. In fact, Lhermitte’s sign is one of the most common forms of physical dysesthesia, or abnormal sensation, experienced by MS patients.
Lhermitte’s sign is typically described as a sudden, intense “buzzing” feeling, akin to an electric shock feeling in the spine. The sensation of electrical jolts typically starts in the neck, in the cervical spinal cord, and then “radiates” in waves down the spine and out into other parts of the body. Patients describe it as a “wave-like feeling” or “wave sensation” through the body.
In MS, the immune system erroneously attacks the myelin sheath, a fatty layer that surrounds nerve fibers and helps them send electrical signals. The resulting neurological damage caused by the loss of myelin — a process known as demyelination — can interfere with normal nerve function in the central nervous system. It can cause some nerves to fire too many electrical signals. Such abnormal neurological activity in the nervous system may cause Lhermitte’s sign.
Lhermitte’s sign in MS is usually triggered by a person moving or flexing the neck in a particular way, oftentimes by bending the head down with the chin toward the chest. The condition is sometimes referred to as “barber chair phenomenon,” as this movement is similar to tilting the head forward during a haircut.
As with many other MS symptoms, fatigue, stress, and heat also can trigger Lhermitte’s sign.
The shocking sensation in the body associated with Lhermitte’s sign usually only lasts for a few seconds, though it can be quite intense during that brief time. Lhermitte’s sign is a type of paroxysmal symptom — a neurological symptom (or a group of symptoms) that appears suddenly, lasts for only a few seconds or minutes, and then disappears just as rapidly.
Lhermitte’s sign is typically fleeting and not permanent, and it may come and go on its own as will other paroxysmal symptoms in MS. Over time, or with the help of treatment, patients may stop experiencing Lhermitte’s sign episodes.
As an MS symptom, Lhermitte’s sign often goes untreated because it occurs suddenly and passes quickly. Managing it generally involves working to avoid triggers and/or implementing certain lifestyle approaches.
Specific electrical stimulating devices, such as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) units, may also block abnormal neuronal impulses and ease the symptom in some patients. TENS units use low voltage electrical current to offer pain relief — the electrical pulses relax muscles and reduce potential pain signals.
Medications used to ease nerve pain, such as anticonvulsants and antidepressants, also may be helpful for managing Lhermitte’s sign in MS patients.
Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.
There is no laboratory or clinical test to assess Lhermitte’s sign, an abnormal physical sensation common in multiple sclerosis that’s described as a feeling like an electric shock in the neck. Usually, a physical examination and medical history, with a patient describing such sensations, is sufficient for healthcare providers to identify the symptom.
Lhermitte’s sign is considered a form of neuropathic (nerve) pain. However, while some people report feeling actual pain from the buzzing or “electrical shock” sensation that characterizes the condition, for others it just feels odd and not actually painful. It is rare for Lhermitte’s sign to cause severe pain and discomfort, though it can happen.
People may find Lhermitte’s sign to be painful or annoying, but the symptom itself is not dangerous or life-threatening. No serious health complications have been associated with Lhermitte’s sign.
Like other paroxysmal symptoms — those that appear suddenly, last for a few seconds or minutes, and then disappear — Lhermitte’s sign may come and go as time goes on. For most people, the symptom resolves on its own in time.
Yes. While Lhermitte’s sign is common in people with MS and is typically associated with the disease, it also may be caused by a number of other health conditions. Among them are a tumor causing spinal cord compression, a physical injury (especially of the neck), and spinal cord inflammation caused by an infection. Treatment with high-dose chemotherapy, arthritis in the neck, called cervical spondylosis, vitamin B12 deficiency, and transverse myelitis — a condition characterized by spinal cord inflammation — are other health conditions that may cause Lhermitte’s sign.
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