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Neck pain. Have degenerative disc disease, herniated and bulging discs, bone spurs throughout cervical spine. What is going on?

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I have been searching and searching to figure out what is going on with me to no avail, from MS, digestive and/or blood disorders to spinal tumors or cord compression or heart disease. No one can find anything on imaging but most doctors agree that something is wrong but we haven't found it yet. Various neurological issues have been plaguing me on and off for months. Here is the sequence of events:

It started with neck pain. I have degenerative disc disease, herniated and bulging discs and bone spurs throughout the cervical spine. However, after two MRIs in 3 years there is no obvious cord compression. The pain usually lasts for a couple months and then goes away, and it's not unbearable.

As soon as the pain started to subside and the MRI revealed no cord compression, I started getting these electric shock sensations gradually down my face and lips and right arm, simultaneously. It started as a few times a day and eventually got to the point where it was happening every few seconds ALL day. Sometimes it can be in other places in my body, but mostly unilaterally from face to arm and middle finger on the right side. The "shocks" last for probably half a second and are painless. But they stun me when they happen and can happen so many times in a row I can't think about anything except avoiding them.

About a week or two after the zaps started and the neck pain had gone away, I suddenly started nodding off while I was driving and I could not attribute it to lack of sleep or anything else. It was gradual and then started happening every day. I could not control my head from nodding and would physically have to hold my eyelids open to get to work and see. I could not control it. Then it started happening while at work and I would have to immediately go into the bathroom to put my head down before I fell asleep at my desk. It was terrible and I immediately went to have a sleep study. In the meantime my doctor prescribed a stimulant until I could have a sleep study done. I had the sleep study, no apnea. Then I had a nap study. And while they ruled out narcolepsy, it was only because I didn't reach REM sleep a second time during the five naps.

It was found during a routine CBC that I was moderately anemic, on the borderline of severe at a 9.2 and extremely Vitamin D deficient at 13.9. I thought this had to be the answer. And while the corrected iron deficiency helped tremendously with the sleep issues, we could never find the cause for the anemia (as I have a very iron-sufficient diet), I still continue to get the zaps and shock sensations; however, on a much more infrequent basis.

Since I have severe constipation and other digestive disorders, including GERD and Barrett's, my GI doctor ordered a contrast CT of abdomen and pelvis. All normal except for a bilateral pars defect in my L5, very obvious. While I don't have persistent back pain, I have always had lower back pain occasionally that I simply attributed to a sedentary job and life style. I have also experienced on and off for a year or two weakness in my thighs and hips when I stand up. It can be so strong that I am always unsure as to whether or not I'm going to collapse. It lasts for about 30 seconds and goes away. I guess I could describe it as a sudden onset of severe muscle fatigue, but only in thighs and hips. I've also had two abnormal EKGs indicating abnormalities on the left side of the heart and a stress test in 2010, which was normal. The most recent one was in the hospital when I went at the urging of my gynecologist for persistent chest pain and arm numbness (unrelated to the zapping) that lasted for a week and was constant. Everything was fine except for the EKG.

I am so confused as to what is going on here I don't know what to do or who to see. I figure if all the serious stuff has been ruled out with imaging that I shouldn't worry about it so much. But all these things happening together is affecting my life very negatively. I had a brain MRI in 2009 that was completely normal and haven't had one since. My primary care physician (an internist I've only seen once) didn't think anything was serious and that it was a combination of chewing gum, anemia and VD deficiency. She thought it would be a waste of time seeing a neurologist.

I should mention that I am bi-polar but I have been on the same medication for over 5 years without any adjustments. I have little if any anxiety, and am a pretty laid back person in general. In addition, cancer (lung, colon, and skin) and blood disorders run in my family. I don't drink or smoke. I am a little on the chunky side but not obese by any means. I have a professional but sedentary job that can be stressful occasionally but I never have to work overtime, so my guess it's not a factor. Other than these crazy symptoms going on, I'm a pretty healthy (physically and mentally) person. I rarely get sick and only recently saw a primary care physician because I didn't have one.

Do any of these symptoms sound familiar to you? I am at my wits end and feel like a hypochondriac. But these symptoms are real, and I am not sure what could be going on that we haven't checked on already.
Posted Wed, 23 May 2012 in Brain and Spine
Answered by Dr. Shiva Kumar R 15 hours later

Thank you for sending your question.

Your question is a good one and I will work on providing you with some information and recommendations regarding the symptoms you are experiencing.

There are a couple of things which come to mind with the symptoms you report and none of them is life-threatening. Most of your symptoms looks to me like related to your anxiety and excessive preoccupation or worry about having a serious illness.

You do have symptoms related to cervical spondylosis and you need to be on medications and regular exercises to strengthen the neck and shoulder muscles. I do not have any explanation for the sudden muscle fatigues and weakness and it looks to me like they are non-organic.

My recommendation would be for you to see a Neurologist for a good clinical examination and consultation to exclude other causes. I want to reassure you that your is not something that is not life-threatening.

I thank you again for submitting your question. I hope you find my response to be both helpful and adequate. If you have any additional concerns regarding your question I would be happy to address them.


Dr Shiva Kumar R
Consultant Neurologist & Epileptologist.
Above answer was peer-reviewed by
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