From the Journals

Watch for abnormal movements in hospitalized COVID-19 patients



Myoclonus was diagnosed in about half of hospitalized COVID-19 patients who were evaluated for movement disorders, data from 50 cases show.

Abnormal movements often occur as complications from critical illness, and neurologic consultation can determine whether patients have experienced a seizure or stroke. However, restriction of bedside assessment in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic increases the risk that abnormal movements will be missed, Jeffrey R. Clark and Eric M. Liotta, MD, of Northwestern University, Chicago, and colleagues wrote.

“Given the limited reports of abnormal movements in hospitalized COVID-19 patients and increased recognition of neurologic manifestations of COVID-19, we sought to examine the frequency and etiology of this finding as an indication of neurologic consultation,” they said.

In a study published in the Journal of the Neurological Sciences, the researchers reviewed data from the first 50 consecutive patients with COVID-19 symptoms who were hospitalized at a single center and underwent neurologic consultation between March 17, 2020, and May 18, 2020.

Overall, 11 patients (22.0%) of patients experienced abnormal movement, and all were admitted to the ICU within 7 days of meeting criteria for severe COVID-19. These patients included nine men and two women with an age range of 36-78 years. The most common comorbidities were obesity, hypertension, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and coronary artery disease.

Myoclonus (generalized and focal) was the most common abnormal movement, and present in 6 of the 11 patients. Three cases were attributed to high-intensity sedation, and three to toxic-metabolic disturbances. In two patients, abnormal movements were attributed to focal seizures in the setting of encephalopathy, with focal facial twitching. An additional two patients experienced tremors; one showed an acute subdural hemorrhage on CT imaging. The second patient showed no sign of stroke or other abnormality on MRI and the tremor improved during the hospital stay. One patient who experienced abnormal high-amplitude nonrhythmic movements of the lower extremities was diagnosed with serotonin syndrome that resolved after discontinuing high-dose fentanyl.

The study findings were limited by several factors, including the small study population and limited availability of MRI, the researchers noted. Assessing severe COVID-19 cases in the ICU setting presents a challenge because of limited patient participation and the potentially confounding effects of sedation and mechanical ventilation.

However, the results highlight the importance of bedside consultation for neurologic evaluation to implement timely, directed treatments, the researchers said.

“A heightened awareness of abnormal eye movements, or subtle facial tremoring, may be the first steps in recognizing potentially dangerous neurologic manifestations,” and clinicians caring for patients with severe COVID-19 should be able to recognize abnormal movements and seek neurologic consultation when indicated, they emphasized.

The study was supported in part by grants to coauthors Nicholas J. Reish, MD, and Dr. Liotta from the National Institutes of Health. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose.

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