IM Board Review

A 67-year-old woman with bilateral hand numbness

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A 67-year-old woman presents to the emergency department after 8 weeks of progressive numbness and tingling in both hands, involving all fingers. The numbness has increased in severity in the last 3 days. She also has occasional numbness around her mouth. She reports no numbness in her feet.

She says she underwent thyroid surgery twice for thyroid cancer 10 years ago. Her medical history also includes type 2 diabetes mellitus (diagnosed 1 year ago), hypertension, dyslipidemia, and diastolic heart failure (diagnosed 5 years ago).

Her current medications are:

  • Metformin 1 g twice a day
  • Candesartan 16 mg once a day
  • Atorvastatin 20 mg once a day
  • Furosemide 40 mg twice a day
  • Levothyroxine 100 μg per day
  • Calcium carbonate 1,500 mg twice a day
  • A vitamin D tablet twice a day, which she has not taken for the last 2 months.

She admits she has not been taking her medications regularly because she has been feeling depressed.

On physical examination, she is alert and oriented but appears anxious. She is not in res­piratory distress. Her blood pressure is 150/90 mm Hg and her pulse is 92 beats per minute and regular. There is a thyroidectomy scar on the anterior neck. Her jugular venous pressure is not elevated. Her heart sounds are normal without extra sounds. She has no pulmonary rales and no lower-extremity edema.

The Phalen test and Tinel test for carpal tunnel syndrome are negative in both hands. Using a Katz hand diagram, the patient reports tingling and numbness in all fingers, both palms, and the dorsum of both hands. Tapping the area over the facial nerve does not elicit twitching of the facial muscles (ie, no Chvostek sign), but compression of the upper arm elicits carpal spasm (ie, positive Trousseau sign). There is no evidence of motor weakness in her hands. The rest of the physical examination is unremarkable.


1. Based on the initial evaluation, which of the following is the most likely cause of our patient’s bilateral hand numbness?

  • Hypocalcemia due to primary hypoparathyroidism
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome due to primary hypothyroidism
  • Diabetic peripheral neuropathy
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency due to metformin
  • Hypocalcemia due to low serum calcitonin

All the conditions above except low serum calcitonin can cause bilateral hand paresthesia. Our patient most likely has hypocalcemia due to primary hypoparathyroidism.


In our patient, bilateral hand numbness and perioral numbness after stopping vitamin D and a positive Trousseau sign strongly suggest hypocalcemia. The classic physical findings in patients with hypocalcemia are the Trousseau sign and the Chvostek sign. The Trousseau sign is elicited by inflating a blood pressure cuff above the systolic blood pressure for 3 minutes and observing for ischemia-induced carpopedal spasm, wrist and metacarpophalangeal joint flexion, thumb adduction, and interphalangeal joint extension. The Chvostek sign is elicited by tapping over the area of the facial nerve below the zygoma in front of the tragus, resulting in ipsilateral twitching of facial muscles.

Although the Trousseau sign is more sensitive and specific than the Chvostek sign, neither is pathognomonic for hypocalcemia.1 The Chvostek sign has been reported to be negative in 30% of patients with hypocalcemia and positive in 10% of normocalcemic individuals.1 The Trousseau sign, however, is present in 94% of hypocalcemic patients vs 1% of normocalcemic individuals.2

Primary hypoparathyroidism secondary to thyroidectomy. Postsurgical hypoparathyroidism is the most common cause of primary hypoparathyroidism. It results from ischemic injury or accidental removal of the parathyroid glands during anterior neck surgery.3,4 The consequent hypocalcemia can be transient, intermittent, or permanent. Permanent postsurgical hypoparathyroidism is defined as persistent hypocalcemia with insufficient parathyroid hormone (PTH) for more than 12 months after neck surgery; however, some consider 6 months to be enough to define the condition.5–7

The incidence of postsurgical hypoparathyroidism varies considerably with the extent of thyroid surgery and the experience of the surgeon.6,8 In the hands of experienced surgeons, permanent hypoparathyroidism occurs in fewer than 1% of patients after total thyroidectomy, whereas the rate may be higher than 6% with less-experienced surgeons.5,9 Other risk factors for postsurgical hypoparathyroidism include female sex, autoimmune thyroid disease, pregnancy, and lactation.5

Pseudohypoparathyroidism is a group of disorders characterized by renal resistance to PTH, leading to hypocalcemia, hyperphosphatemia, and elevated serum PTH. It is also associated with phenotypic features such as short stature and short fourth metacarpal bones.

Calcitonin deficiency. Calcitonin is a polypeptide hormone secreted from the parafollicular (C) cells of the thyroid gland. After total thyroidectomy, calcitonin levels are expected to be reduced. However, the role of calcitonin in humans is unclear. One study has shown that calcitonin is possibly a vestigial hormone, given that no calcitonin-related disorders (excess or deficiency) have been reported in humans.10


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