IM Board Review

A 40-year-old man with spells of generalized weakness and paresthesias

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A 40-year-old man who works as a roofer began, 1 week ago, to experience episodes of generalized weakness, perioral numbness, and diffuse paresthesias. In the past he has had recurring nosebleeds but no history of other medical conditions.

His recent “spells” come on abruptly and spontaneously, without warning, and last about 15 minutes. He never loses consciousness, but he reports a feeling of derealization or an out-of-body experience—he can hear the people around him talking during the spells, but he feels that everything is far away. He has been having about three episodes per day. They typically occur after mild exertion or heavy lifting, and each episode resolves with complete rest. He has had no nausea, vomiting, loss of bowel or bladder control, fever, chills, or traumatic brain injury.

The patient first reported to the emergency department of a local hospital for evaluation. There, he underwent computed tomography (CT) of the head without contrast, which showed nothing abnormal. However, he had an episode while in the emergency department, which prompted his physician to admit him to the hospital.

In the hospital, he underwent an extensive medical evaluation. CT angiography revealed no evidence of vasculitis or occlusive disease. Results of electroencephalography during these spells were normal. Results of magnetic resonance imaging of the cervical and lumbar spine were also normal.

Figure 1. CT shows a large arteriovenous malformation in the upper lobe of the left lung (arrow).

A neurologist was consulted. Concerned that the spells were due to paradoxical emboli coming through a patent foramen ovale, the neurologist recommended transthoracic echocardiography with agitated saline. This study showed a normal ejection fraction and a right-to-left shunt through a left pulmonary arteriovenous malformation (AVM). Unfortunately, the shunt fraction could not be estimated because the patient had another episode during the procedure, and so the procedure was cut short. CT of the chest confirmed a large AVM in the upper lobe of the left lung (Figure 1).

The patient is transferred

The patient’s physician requested that he be transferred to Mayo Clinic for further evaluation.

Figure 2. Clubbing of the fingers.

When he arrived, we performed a complete physical examination, in which we noted scattered erythematous maculopapular telangiectases in the lower lips and significant digital clubbing (Figure 2). He could not recall any family members having rheumatologic or cardiovascular diseases, but he recalled that his father has oral telangiectases and recurrent epistaxis.

His examination was interrupted by yet another spell, during which his oxygen saturation fell to 85%. We immediately started giving him oxygen by nasal cannula, which raised his oxygen saturation to 96%, and the spell promptly ended.

Results of routine laboratory tests are shown in Table 1.

After his physical examination was completed and his records from the other hospital were reviewed, a diagnosis was made. No further diagnostic studies were pursued.


1. Based on the information available, which of the following is the most likely diagnosis?

  • Generalized tonic-clonic seizures
  • Osler-Weber-Rendu disease
  • Subarachnoid hemorrhage
  • Conversion disorder
  • Atrial septal defect

Generalized tonic-clonic seizures begin with abrupt loss of consciousness, followed by stiffening of the body and extremities. This is the tonic phase, which may last for 1 minute. The clonic phase follows, characterized by abnormal jerking and teeth-clenching (raising the concern that the patient will bite his or her tongue). The clonic phase lasts 1 to 2 minutes. After a seizure, confusion and headache are common. On electroencephalography, epileptiform abnormalities are documented in about 23% of patients with a first documented seizure.1

Our patient’s history of remaining fully conscious and of having normal electroencephalographic findings during his spells does not suggest generalized tonic-clonic seizures.

Osler-Weber-Rendu disease is also known as hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia (HHT). Its pathophysiology is complex, and it is believed to be related to mutations in an endothelial protein2 that lead to abnormal vascular structures. The estimated prevalence in European studies is 1 in 5,000; in Japanese studies it is 1 in 8,000.3–4

The diagnosis of HHT is based on four clinical criteria:

  • Spontaneous and recurrent epistaxis
  • Multiple mucocutaneous telangiectases
  • Pulmonary, cerebral, or gastrointestinal AVMs
  • A first-degree relative with the disease.

The presence of three or four of these criteria establishes a “definite” diagnosis, while fewer than two makes it “unlikely.”5 Since the spectrum of this disease is wide, varying from mild epistaxis to iron-deficiency anemia, its diagnosis is often missed.6

Our patient meets at least three of the criteria—recurrent epistaxis, oral telangiectases, and a CT-documented pulmonary AVM. His father has a history of oral telangiectases and epistaxis but was never formally diagnosed with HHT. The patient presented with spells of weakness and paresthesias from worsening hypoxemia due to an enlarged pulmonary AVM. Thus, based on these features, HHT is the most likely diagnosis.

Subarachnoid hemorrhage is commonly from a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. Common symptoms include sudden, severe headaches with focal neurologic deficits, a stiff neck, brief loss of consciousness, nausea, and vomiting.7

Our patient’s CT scan showed no intracranial bleeding, and CT angiography showed no evidence of aneurysm. Thus, he has neither clinical nor radiographic features of subarachnoid hemorrhage.

Conversion disorder is typically associated with psychological stressors.8 It is characterized by the sudden onset of neurologic deficits such as blindness, paralysis, and numbness that cannot be explained by a general medical condition.

Our patient has a known pulmonary AVM with clinical and laboratory findings of hypoxemia that explain his spells. Therefore, the diagnosis of conversion disorder cannot be made.

A right-to-left intracardiac shunt can be present in patients with patent foramen ovale, atrial septal defects with shunt reversal, Eisenmenger syndrome, or tetralogy of Fallot (even in adults). It can present with hypoxemia and neurologic weakness.

Our patient’s echocardiogram ruled out these conditions.

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