Editor’s note: “Need to Know” is a series inspired by common forum questions and comments from readers. Have a comment or question about MS? Visit our forum.
This week’s question is inspired by the forum topic “Lhermitte’s Sign…” from May 4, 2018.
What is the barber chair phenomenon?
This vernacular expression describes a brief electrical sensation that “buzzes” from the base of the neck into the arms and limbs when one flexes the neck to move the chin to the chest. This posture is commonly assumed while getting one’s hair cut, hence the name.
Its more clinical name is Lhermitte’s sign. French neurologist Jean Lhermitte (pronounced LARE-meet) made the connection between the phenomenon and MS patients in 1924. However, researchers Pierre Marie and Chatelin were the first to describe it in 1917.
Lhermitte’s sign: A pain in the neck
Lhermitte’s sign — which is actually not a sign, but a symptom — is not unique to MS.
People who experience this sensation, described as one of the pain syndromes of MS, might have any of the following conditions instead:
- Spinal trauma
- Cervical disc herniation
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
- Transverse myelitis
- Behçet’s disease
- Arnold-Chiari malformation or other compression of the cervical spinal cord
People undergoing chemotherapy or radiation for cancer may experience Lhermitte’s. Use of certain medications, or withdrawal from certain medications, can also bring on the symptom.
Still, about 16 percent of people with MS experience this classic form of MS nerve pain. The sign can be traced back to lesions of the cervical spinal cord or lower brainstem, and may also be the product of demyelination in other regions of the brain.
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