Case Reports

Hemiballismus in Patients With Poorly Controlled Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus

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Swift identification of hemiballismus as a complication of poorly controlled type 2 diabetes mellitus may help facilitate optimal care through glycemic control and prevent debilitating loss of patients' function and autonomy, prolonged hospital stays, and overuse of resources.



Hemiballismus is an acquired hyperkinetic movement disorder characterized by unilateral, involuntary, often large-amplitude limb movements. Ballistic movements are now considered to be on the choreiform spectrum.1 Movements usually involve both the arm and leg, and in half of cases, facial movements such as tongue clucking and grimacing are seen. 2,3 Presentations of hemiballismus vary in severity from intermittent to nearly continuous movements, which, in some cases, may lead to exhaustion, injury, or disability. Some patients are unable to ambulate or feed themselves with the affected limb.


The 2 most common causes of hemichorea-hemiballismus are stroke and hyperglycemia, with an incidence of 4% and unknown incidence, respectively. 1,3,4 Other causes include HIV, traumatic brain injury, encephalitis, vasculitis, mass effect, multiple sclerosis, and adverse drug reactions. 4-7 Acute or subacute hemiballismus is classically attributed to a lesion in subthalamic nucleus (STN), but this is true only in a minority of cases. Hemiballismus can be caused by any abnormality in various subnuclei of the basal ganglia, including the classic location in the STN, striatum, and globus pallidus. 4 Evidence shows the lesions typically involve a functional network connected to the posterolateral putamen. 8

Although not commonly recognized, hyperglycemia in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) is the second most common cause of hemichoreahemiballismus. 3 Over the past 90 years, numerous case reports have described patients with DM with acute and subacute onset of hemiballistic and hemichoreiform movements while in a hyperglycemic state or after its resolution. Reported cases have been limited to small numbers of patients with only a few larger-scale reviews of more than 20 patients. 7,9 Most reported cases involve geriatric patients and more commonly, females of Eastern Asian descent with an average age of onset of 71 years. 4,10 Patients typically present with glucose levels from 500 to 1,000 mg/dL and hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) levels almost double the normal values. Interestingly, neuroimaging findings in these patients have consistently shown hyperintense signal in the contralateral basal ganglia on T1-weighted magnetic resonance images (MRIs). Noncontrast computed tomography (CT) shows well-defined unilateral increased density in the contralateral basal ganglia without mass effect. 1,9,11

This report aims to illustrate and enhance the understanding of hemiballismus associated with hyperglycemia. One patient presented to the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Bay Pines VA Healthcare System (BPVAHCS) in Florida, which motivated us to search for other similar cases. We reviewed the charts of 2 other patients who presented to BPVAHCS over the past 10 years. The first case presented with severe hyperglycemia and abnormal movements that were not clearly diagnosed as hemiballismus. MRI findings were characteristic and assisted in making the diagnosis. The second case was misdiagnosed as hemiballismus secondary to ischemic stroke. The third case was initially diagnosed as conversion disorder until movements worsened and the correct diagnosis of hyperglycemia-induced hemichorea hemiballismus was confirmed by the pathognomonic neuroimaging findings.

Case Presentations

Case 1

A 65-year-old male with a history of uncontrolled T2DM presented with repetitive twitching and kicking movements that involved his left upper and lower extremities for 3 weeks. The patient reported that he did not take his medications or follow the recommended diabetes diet. His HbA1c on admission was 12.2% with a serum glucose of 254 mg/dL. The MRI showed a hyperintense T1 signal within the right basal ganglia including the right caudate with sparing of the internal capsule (Figure 1). There was no associated mass effect or restricted diffusion. It was compatible with a diagnosis of hyperglycemia- induced hemichorea-hemiballismus. The patient was advised to resume taking glipizide 10 mg daily, metformin 1,000 mg by mouth twice daily, and to begin 10 units of 70/30 insulin aspart 15 minutes before meals twice daily, and to follow a low carbohydrate diet, with reduce dietary intake of sugar. At his 1-month follow-up visit, the patient reported an improvement in his involuntary movements. At the 5-month follow-up, the patient’s HbA1c level was 10.4% and his hyperkinetic movements had completely resolved.

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