Background: “Dropped head syndrome” caused by neck extensor weakness has been reported in a variety of neuromuscular disorders. Previously published reports include isolated cases with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). In this report, nine patients with ALS and dropped head syndrome seen during a 20 year period are described.
Patients and investigations: Between 1981 and 2000, 683 patients with ALS were diagnosed, based on El Escorial criteria. Nine of these had profound neck extensor weakness observed as an early feature, or developing during the later stages of the disease. The protocol for evaluation included detailed clinical history, neurological examination, electromyography, and nerve conduction studies. Investigations were undertaken to exclude malignancy, lymphoproliferative disorders, thyroid dysfunction, and collagen vascular disease.
Results: The incidence of dropped head syndrome was 1.3%. The mean (SD) age of the affected patients was 53.3 (10.3) years (range 33 to 65), with an equal distribution of cases in the fourth to seventh decades. In six patients, head drop was an early feature (mean interval from onset of illness 11.6 months (range 3 to 24)); in three it was late (between three and eight years after onset). In five patients, mild neck flexor weakness was present in addition to severe extensor weakness. In all nine patients there were diffuse upper and lower motor neurone signs. None of the patients had difficulty in breathing but all had difficulty in swallowing and social embarrassment, both of which could be corrected by simple measures.
Conclusions: Dropped head syndrome is an important clinical sign and usually occurs as an early feature within the first one to two years after the onset of ALS. The cause of dropped head syndrome in these nine cases could be easily established as ALS by the presence of generalised signs.
- dropped head syndrome
- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
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Competing interests: none declared