Lhermitte’s sign is a sudden feeling of an electric shock-like pain that travels down the neck and into the spine and/or other extremities, often happening when the neck is flexed. Lhermitte's sign was first described by Marie and Chateline in 1917 but was named after Jean Lhermitte in 1924 after working with a patient suffering from MS. Many people have heard it referred to as the barber chair phenomenon. Although painful, Lhermitte's sign is not life-threatening and frequently goes away on its own or with treatment. The pain is usually abbreviated but can be extremely harsh.
When first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, patients often describe these shocking sensations associated with Lhermitte's sign to their physician. MS is an inflammatory disease in which the immune system attacks the myelin of the nerve fibers. The myelin is the outer protective coating of the nerves. When this damage occurs, scar tissue forms and blocks messages sent to the brain resulting in nerve pain. Lhermitte's sign is one of the first symptoms associated with MS pain. Along with MS, Lhermitte's sign can also occur in those who suffer from other spinal cord issues, a vitamin B12 deficiency, lupus, physical trauma, disk herniation, Bechet’s disease (an autoimmune disease that damages blood vessels), and transverse myelitis (inflammation of the spinal cord).
Lhermitte's sign pain worsens during times of emotional or physical stress. Staying calm, getting plenty of sleep, and lessening your stress level is imperative. Things that may curtail the pain from Lhermitte's sign include, but are not limited to, a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) unit, proper posture, neck braces, deep breathing, stretching, and massages. A health professional may also prescribe medications, such as anti-seizure drugs, muscle relaxants, steroids, antidepressants, and sodium channel blockers, to lessen the pain and control your body’s electrical impulses. Talk with your physician to determine which treatment works best for you.