Carpal tunnel syndrome is the most common “pinched nerve” condition that neurologists see. It is a form of compression neuropathy The typical patient comes in with complaints of hand or arm pain associated with one or more numb fingers. There is usually sparing of the little finger. This painful numbness will frequently wake affected patients from their sleep. They will complain of a swollen feeling in their hand (or both hands) associated with painful numbness affecting all but the little finger.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by compression of the median nerve (the “carpal tunnel nerve”) as it pass under the carpal tunnel ligament. The carpal tunnel is located at the wrist. There is a small band of tissue across this to hold down the median nerve and vein. When the carpal tunnel becomes too narrowed, the median nerve becomes “pinched” and the vein is compressed. This combination of events results in the hand becoming numb and swollen. Carpal tunnel symptoms frequently occur only at night, during sleep. This is because we all have a tendency to sleep with our wrists slightly flexed. This position further narrows the carpal tunnel, causing symptoms. As the carpal tunnel narrows further, with time, patients will develop daytime hand numbness. Holding a newspaper, magazine or steering wheel can bring on symptoms. In more severe cases hand grip weakness can occur. Patients find that they have difficulty removing jar lids or may drop objects. Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs in both hand about 50% of the time.

CTS is diagnosed, most commonly by a neurologist, on the basis of the patient’s symptoms and detailed neurological exam. Electrical diagnostic testing, nerve conduction studies (NCV), are necessary to confirm carpal tunnel syndrome – particularly if surgery is being considered. Many patients can have carpal tunnel symptoms and have normal NCV studies. These patients are not candidates for surgery. The standard of care medical treatment for CTS is wearing a cock-up wrist brace. These braces prevent wrist flexion, thereby reducing the pressure on the median nerve. Frequently patients can “cure” their CTS with wearing a brace. For more severe symptoms with abnormal NCV studies, surgical decompression may be indicated. This is a procedure done under local anesthesia. A small incision is made at the wrist and the carpal ligament is cut. This relieves the pressure on the median nerve. Success rate for this surgery is approximately 90%.

If you feel that you have carpal tunnel syndrome, you should see a neurologist and have diagnostic studies performed. Most patients will do well with conservative, non-surgical treatment. For more detailed information click here.

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Myasthenia gravis is a rare disorder of muscle weakness, affecting approximately 70,000 individuals in the United States. Many confuse this with multiple sclerosis. Multiple sclerosis is a central nervous system disorder affecting the insulation (myelin) on nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. In contrast myasthenia gravis is a muscle disease where transmission of electrical impulses to the muscle fail. This results in the muscle not contracting fully, resulting in weakness. This condition can selectively affect the eye muscles, muscles of the head and neck or be generalized affecting all muscle, including the diaphragm. If the diaphragm is involved, patients can have varying degrees of breathing problems, including respiratory failure.

Myasthenia gravis (MG) is the standard model of a neurological autoimmune disorder. It is the the best understood of all autoimmune diseases. In autoimmune diseases, the body’s immune system fails to recognize a particular body system as being part of “itself.” In MG, the immune system does not recognize the transmitter receptors for acetylcholine (the muscle communication transmitter) as being part of the body’s own system. The immune system for antibodies against the receptors and attacks them. With fewer receptors on the muscle membrane, the muscle does not get the full chemical message to contract. This causes affected individuals to have weakness in the muscles affected by MG. These antibodies can be detected by a blood test for acetylcholine receptor antibodies. It is important to note, however, that not all patients with myasthenia will have a positive antibody test, known as a false negative (as high as 25%.) Particularly patients with ocular myasthenia frequently have negative tests. This does not mean that they do not have the condition.

Diagnosis of myasthenia is based on a careful medical history and detailed neurological exam. All patients with MG have some degree of visual symptoms including double vision or eyelid drooping. The presence of variable eyelid drooping, particularly if it shifts from side to side, is virtually diagnostic of myasthenia gravis. Confirmatory tests can include EMG testing and a chemical test known as the Tensilon test. Tensilon (edrophonium) is a chemical that temporarily blocks the enzyme that stops the action of acetylcholine. This has the effect of making the acetylcholine receptors that are “on” stay on longer, thereby combating weakness. Patient’s with suspected myasthenia can be given Tensilon. This short acting drug will temporarily reverse the weakness that myasthenic patients have. Other lab work should be performed to exclude other muscle diseases, thyroid problems or other metabolic problems that could cause muscle weakness.

Once the diagnosis is made, patients can be treated with Mestinon ( pyridostigmine.) Mestinon is a long acting version of Tensilon and works by inhibiting cholinesterase, the chemical that breaks down acetylcholine. If we did not have this enzyme, we could not relax our muscles. When acetylcholine is removed from the muscle receptor the muscle no longer contracts. Mestinon works well for symptomatic relief of the muscle weakness and associated symptoms of MG. Other symptoms associated with weakness can include chewing and swallowing difficulties, weakness of breathing with shortness of breath and generalized weakness. Double vision and drooping eyelids, conditions made worse by being in bright sun light, are frequent complaints.

For patients that have persistent symptoms, despite Mestinon therapy, clinicians will frequently employ the use of immunosuppressant therapy that will dampen the response of the immune system. This has the effect of limiting the destruction of the acetylcholine receptors on the muscle membrane surface. The most commonly used drug for this is Prednisone, a steroid drug, frequently used to treat autoimmune disorders. Although Prednisone works very well, it has its downside. Prednisone side effects can include weight gain, elevated blood sugar, cataracts, accelerated osteoporosis and other serious medical problems. Other immunosuppressants have been used with success. These include Imuran (azathioprine), cyclosporine, Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide) and CellCept (mycophenolate.) While being helpful in treating MG, these powerful immunosuppresants have their own lists of potential side effects. The purpose of immunosuppressant therapy is to cause myasthenia to go into remission. This is not always successful.

For patient’s with a severe worsening of their myasthenia symptoms, hospitalization may be necessary. Higher dosage, intravenous steroids can be given in combination with a blood filtering technique, known as plasmaphersis. The latter is used to filter out the acetylcholine receptor antibodies. A surgical technique, thymectomy, can be used to remove the thymus gland in the chest. This gland is responsible for making the cells that make the acetylcholine receptor antibodies.

Myasthenia gravis is a serious neurological condition and autoimmune disease characterized by muscle weakness that can affect vision, swallowing, breathing and general activities. Serious complications, including respiratory failure, can develop for untreated patients. Affected individuals should seek out care from a board certified neurologist, preferably one specializing in movement disorders or neuromuscular disease.

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Shingles is a condition characterized by a painful, blistering skin rash. This rash can affect any part of the body. The medical name for shingles is Herpes Zoster. It is the caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. People who have had chicken pox are potentially at risk for developing shingles later in their life. Patients who have never had chicken pox can get this from individuals who have an active attack of shingles, as the rash is contagious. Shingles can appear anywhere on the body but tend to follow the distribution of the nerves, as this is where the virus lives. Although severe in any part of the body, facial involvement around the eye presents an even greater problem. If shingles involves the upper face, the eye can be affected, potentially leading to eye complications including infection and corneal ulceration. The treatment of an acute attack of shingles involves giving a patient one of the specific antiviral agents such as Zovirax (acyclovir), Famvir (famcilovir) or Valtrex (valacyclovir) along with Prednisone to shorten the duration of the attack and to lessen potential for development of postherpetic neuralgia. Postherpetic neuralgia develops in about 20% of patients who have had shingles. Shingles is much more common in individuals over the age of 50. Approximately 1 million people in the United States get shingles every year.

The FDA has recently approved a shingles vaccine, Zostavax, to aid in the prevention of this condition. This is an injectable medication that requires only one treatment. The Center for Disease Control has recommended that all eligible patients over the age of 60 be immunized. The requirements for receiving the vaccine are as follows: you are in good health and must not have any condition that would lower your immune system function. Conditions that lower your immune system include diabetes, cancer, chemotherapy or steroid therapy, active tuberculosis, excessive alcohol consumption or acute illnesses such as pneumonia. The best available treatment to prevent shingles is this vaccine.

Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) is an extremely painful condition that follows after having an attack of shingles. Although the rash and blisters clear, affected patients are left with a searing, burning painful sensation on the skin, in the area of the rash. This is a form of peripheral neuropathy. Their skin can be so sensitive that even clothing or bed sheets brushing up against the skin can trigger severe pain. Unfortunately, narcotic pain killers do not help in reducing this pain. Alternate treatment with nonnarcotic medications is necessary. Commonly used medications for treatment of PHN include the anticonvulsants such as Tegretol, Lyrica, Neurontin, Trileptal and Topamax. Other agents that are helpful are the tricyclic compounds such as amitriptyline, imipramine and nortryptiline. A novel approach to treatment involves using Lidoderm patches. These are lidocaine embedded patches that control the pain without having to take an oral medication. These can be used in combination with oral medications to better control the pain of PHN. Most patients will have clearing of their PHN within 1-6 months. Rarely it can persist for a longer period of time. For patients who have received the shingles vaccine, who subsequently develop shingles, the incidence of developing PHN is significantly reduced and the severity of the symptoms are generally less. Please contact Sarasota Neurology for more information.

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Trigeminal neuralgia (also known as tic delaroux) is a disorder characterized by a severe, electrical shooting pain in the face. The trigger area on the face is typical around the nose or upper lip. Affected individuals experience a brief but intense electrical or burning pain on the affected side of their face. Trigeminal neuralgia typical affects only one side of the face. The cause of this disorder is unknown in most cases and it is not hereditary. On rare instances, there can blood vessels pushing up against the nerve. Patients with trigeminal neuralgia find that air blowing across their face, brushing their teeth, chewing, washing their face, putting on make up or drinking hot/cold beverage will trigger severe pain attacks. At times, talking can even trigger pain episodes. They can have trouble sleeping at night if they lay on the affected side. Although the majority of individuals with this condition are over the age of 50, it can begin at younger ages. Patients may have daily face pain attacks for weeks to months and then the condition will suddenly go into remission for a period of time. This remission period may last weeks to months but then reoccurs as severe as ever. Other less fortunate individuals have the pain continually.

Fortunately good non-narcotic medical treatment exists to control pain. The main medication used is an antiseizure medication called carbamazepine (Tegretol.) This medication is considered by many to be the drug of choice for treatment of this condition. Tegretol frequently provides excellent, prompt relief and control of facial pain. For patients who cannot tolerate Tegretol, or for those who do not respond, there are severe other antiseizure medications that can be helpful. These include Trileptal, Topamax, Lamictal, Neurontin and Lyrica. Another medication, which is not in the antiseizure class, is amitriptyline. It is important to note that narcotic pain killers do not work well for trigeminal neuralgia and should be avoided.

For patients with intractable trigeminal neuralgia that does not respond to the typically used medications, surgery may be an option for treatment. There are severe surgical procedures that can be effective. Radiofrequency rhizotomy is a commonly performed procedure that provides good pain relief for many patients. It is not an invasive procedure which increases the safety. Glycerol (alcohol) rhizotomy is a similar procedure that can be tried. Gamma knife surgery procedure is a noninvasive treatment using focused radio waves to ablate the nerves responsible for pain. These are the more common surgical procedures used to treat trigeminal neuralgia but should be reserved only for those patients who have not responded to several different medication trials.

For diagnosis, it is necessary to see a neurologist familiar with this condition. Patients all too frequently go to a dentist, thinking they have some type of dental problem. I have seen patients who have had multiple teeth taken out as well as root canals and yet their pain persists. This is because trigeminal neuralgia is not a dental problem. Do not suffer unnecessarily, get into to see a physician who can help.

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