A page devoted to my readers questions. My answers follow:
I thank one of my readers Sandy for writing in. Sandy asks some important questions. As a lot of you may be dealing with some of the same issues as her, I am reproducing her question here. My answers to her query follow.
Again thank you Sandy for writing in.
In june I experienced some very unusual headaches that felt think electrical shocks throughout my head. One night I experienced the worst headache of my life in my forehead only. It lasted all night and in the morning it was better; however I experienced dizziness and if I bent over a swell of pain would radiate through my head. A week later I experienced an eye problem and was told that it was uveitis. Because uveitis can be caused by a virus or autoimmune problem, I immediately began testing for an autoimmune problem. During this testing I continued to experiece overall nerve pain in by head (forehead, temple, back of head) as well as neck pain, should nerve pain through fingers, neck, ankels), joint & chest pain. The only positive test result showed a high ANA test of 1:640 but all other blood tests(c-reactive protein, RF, Sed Rad, SM etc..) were normal. I also had an MRI and the radiologist noted several tiny foci white matter in the frontal lobe area. He indicated that it is may or may not be of clinical significane but could be small vessel ischemia disease or possible dymlienation. I wonder if there is a correlation to the several headache I had in my forehead with the MRI results. My neurologist initially said I had occpital headaches and is normally caused by a pinched nerve; but after receiving this MRI, I don’t think he has it right. I feel the headaches and vision problems along with the other symtoms correlate together. Should I be concerned about this MRI. I don’t feel that this is MS because I’m not having muscular/walking issues; but greatly concerned that if these headaches continue, cognitive problems could occur. Your opinion would be greatly appreciated.
From MRI white matter lesions: does it represent MS?, 2008/09/26 at 2:24 PM
thank you for writing in. Your case history is intriguing, since I do not have all the details my assessment is severly limited. I can though tell you that white matter lesions are commonly seen when patients undergo a MRI study of the brain. Some of the times these white matter lesions (also referred to as white matter hyperintensities (WMH), this is because they appear as bright white spots on the MRI) are incidental findings and may have nothing to do with the reason the MRI was done in the first place. Let me explain. Lets assume you come to see me since you have being lately experiencing headaches. I order an MRI because I want to rule out a brain tumor. MRI result comes back. There is no brain tumor but incidentally note is made of several scattered white matter hyperintense lesions. Likely in the case I describe above, the WMHs are incidental findings and not the cause of the patient’s severe headaches.
So what do these white matter lesions represent? Many diseases can cause white matter lesions in the brain MRI. One of the diseases usually mentioned in MRI reports is multiple sclerosis. Patients rightly get scared that they may have MS. While multiple sclerosis is characterized by white matter lesions (we call them plaques in the case of MS) which are scattered in the brain, I want to re-emphasize that not all white matter lesions represent MS (see my website for more details http://braindiseases.info). In the case of MS, the plaques are scattered in the brain in a particular way. Moreover if you do not have any signs or symptoms of MS (your examination is normal), more than likely the white matter lesions do not represent MS. The diagnosis of MS is clinical, at times supplemented by tests like MRI brain, CSF/ spinal fluid examination and evoked potentials.
A lot of work has been done to determine the significance of white matter lesions. The thinking now is that they represent ischemia (lack of blood flow) in the small blood vessels of the brain. Hence they are also at times referred to as ischemic small vessel disease. Hence these lesions are more commonly seen in the MRI of patients who have cerebrovascular risk factors like hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol as well those that smoke. Their incidence increases as we age (meaning you are more likely to see them on the MRI of someone who is 60 and above rather than someone who is in his 20’s).
They have been reported in the MRI of patients who suffer for migraine. The reason they are more commonly seen in migraine patients is again not fully elucidated but the thinking is that migraine is due to vascular causes and hence WMHs are more common in these patients.
While I cannot comment of your case in particular, you have a positive ANA though rest of the autoimmune markers are negative and your ESR is low. I would rule out the usual suspects, vasculitis though remains in the differential and it would be reasonable to make sure you do not have any underlying vasculitic etiology.
Your last question is important. Though there is no direct correlation between the extent of WMHs in the brain and the development of cognitive decline, as I stated earlier they become more common as we age. People who have extensive white matter disease in their MRI frequently do exhibit cognitive deficts when carefully tested for. Whether this represents a form of vascular dementia is not clear.
I would advise you to follow with your PMD and neurologist. They would be the best people to guide further diagnostic workup and treatment.
Nitin Sethi, MD
One of my readers wrote to me today asking me a question about Absence seizures. She is a teacher and is concerned about a student in her care. I always feel teachers pick up Absence seizures far more frequently than parents. One of the reasons for this is that they spend so much time with the children (today most parents work and have limited time to spend with children). Teachers also are astute observers of children behavior and usually have a pretty good feel if something is wrong.
Here is what Ms. Lynn says, my answers to her query follow:
Ms J Lynn
Hi Dr Sethi,
I am a teacher and I have a student who is exhibiting these types of behaviors:
staring episodes, often says he can’t remember something we just talked about 30 seconds prior, he said recently that he feels like his “brain just wouldn’t work sometimes,” he has frequent meltdowns, easily agitated (but not aggressive), social (but very sensitive and easily hurt or offended), seems to have a low threshold for frustration and emotions escalate quickly, and he seems to overly react in situations when he feels physically hurt (if a ball hits him on any part of his body he is very upset, needs time to calm and he complains of feeling lots of pain).
Could all of these symptoms be related to some type of seizure activity?
Thank you for you help.
Dear Ms. Lynn,
thank you for writing in. Clinically seizures in children frequently look different from seizures in adults. In the case of Absence seizures, all the child may do would be to stare (hence the name staring spells), there are no gross convulsive movements seen (the child does not shake or have jerks of his arms and legs). During the time the child is having a seizure (staring), his brain is malfunctioning and hence the child is unable to recall things said or spoken to him during that time. Children may have hundreds of these small Absence seizures during the course of a day and hence you can imagine what follows. These children start slipping in their grades as compared to their peers.
I have to add here though, that not all staring spells in children turn out to be Absence seizures. As you are well aware there can be many behavioral and developmental problems in children which at times may mimic seizures (children who have Attention Deficit Disorder too do not do well in school etc).
I would advise you to report your observations to his parents. The child can be assessed by a pediatrician and further investigations if needed can then be carried out.
I sincerely appreciate your concern for your student. Teachers lay the foundation of our society. I am what I am today because of the hard work of my teachers and my parents.
Nitin Sethi, MD
Nitin K Sethi, MD
Assistant Professor of Neurology
NYP-Weill Cornell Medical Center
New York, NY 10065
One of my readers Lisa asked me some very specific MS questions. Since I feel these questions shall be on many MS patients minds I am reproducing them here. Here are the questions followed by my answers. Thank you Lisa!!!
Hi, I have enjoyed reading the information you posted. I have a few questions of my own:
At this point, I have an MRI with 8 lesions, one possibly of which is tumefactive MS, a postive LP for oligoclonal bands, and my neurologist has diagnosed me with “clinically isolated syndrome”…not full blown MS at this point, but still wants to begin treatment.
1. Is tumefactive MS considered more fatal or harder to treat than “regular” MS?
2. How many oligoclonal bands are needed for a low amount? High amount? My report states greater than 3 bands. Why is there not a specific number given?
3. I have been given the choice between Rebif and Copaxone. Which is the better treatment?
thank you for writing in. You ask some very specific questions and that is what I shall attempt to answer. I am not sure why your doctor has stil labelled you as a clinically isolated syndrome (likely it is because you have had only one clinical attack suggestive of MS). Your MRI though does show dissemination of the disease in space (you can read more about the clinical diagnosis of MS on my website http://braindiseases.info) and you have more than 3 oligoclonal bands in your CSF. Now to answer your first question. Some patients have large sized demyelinating plaques (lesions) on their MRI. This is commonly referred to as tumefactive MS (because on the MRI, the lesion is large and resembles a tumor more which it has to be differentiated). There is some data to suggest that MS patients with tumefactive disease have a more aggressive disease course. Though I have to add that this data is not robust.
Oligoclonal bands are frequently present in the CSF of MS patients. Here I have to add that oligoclonal bands can be seen in many other conditions other than MS hence one has to make sure that they are present only in the CSF and not in the blood (In MS these bands are produced intrathecally meaning present only in CSF but not in blood). One study suggested that low or absent number of oligoclonal bands in the cerebrospinal fluid at the time of diagnosis predicts a better prognosis. However quantification of oligoclonal bands in the CSF remains an insensitive prognostic indicator and hence should not be used to influence decisions regarding treatment.
Now to your third question. There is some evidence to suggest that higher dose interferon (Betaseron/ Rebif) are more effective as compared to lower dose interferon. The interferons as well as Copaxone are recommened for initial treatment of relapsing remitting MS. Most of the times it is the patient’s lifestyle, easy of administration and side-effect profile which determines the choice between them.
I hope that helps you out and feel free to write again. I wish you the best.
Nitin Sethi, MD
Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita