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Acute anterior radiculitis associated with West Nile virus infection
  1. M Park,
  2. J S Hui,
  3. R E Bartt
  1. Cook County Hospital and Rush-Presbyterian-St Luke’s Medical Center, 1725 West Harrison Street, Suite 1118, Chicago, IL 60612, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr Margaret Park; 

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Our knowledge of neurological syndromes associated with West Nile virus (WNV) infection continues to evolve. Recent reports during the 1999 outbreak in New York City have most commonly described an encephalitis and aseptic meningitis associated with the infection, but muscle weakness was also found to be an unexpected but prominent feature.1 Although electrodiagnostic testing in some cases revealed a predominantly axonal polyneuropathy, the mechanism of this weakness remains unclear. The first attempt to account for WNV associated weakness was described in a 1979 case report, suggesting acute anterior myelitis as the aetiology.2 More recently, involvement of the anterior horn cell was implicated in several cases of WNV poliomyelitis, as localised by electrodiagnostic studies.3,4 We present the first known case of a WNV poliomyelitis-like syndrome with associated magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) findings, and propose an alternate explanation for the associated weakness.

Case report

A 29 year old right handed man with no significant past medical history reported symptoms of fever, myalgia, nausea, vomiting, and neck stiffness several days after a fishing trip in the Chicago metropolitan area in August 2002. Simultaneously with these symptoms, he described dull, non-radiating left hip pain. On the following day he began to experience weakness of his left leg, which caused him some difficulty in walking. However, he consistently denied back pain or sensory symptoms. Within three days, his constitutional symptoms resolved, but the hip pain and leg weakness persisted. There was no relevant social history. Of note, he reported multiple insect bites while on that fishing trip.

On examination, he was afebrile, alert, and fully cognisant. General examination was unremarkable. Straight leg raising did not produce pain, and there was a full range of motion in the left hip. Neurological examination revealed a flaccid monoparesis (MRC grade 2–3) of the left leg, involving both proximal and distal muscles. Deep tendon reflexes were absent in the left lower extremity. Sensory examination was normal. He had an antalgic gait, with associated left foot drop and a hip thrust to compensate for significant hip flexor weakness. The remainder of the examination was unremarkable.

Laboratory evaluation included the following normal tests: complete blood counts, metabolic panel, antinuclear antibody, serum immunoelectrophoresis, and HIV-1 western blot. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis showed 22 white cells per mm3 (80% lymphocytes), glucose 53 mg/dl, and protein 63 mg/dl. Electrodiagnostic studies of the affected limb were obtained 11 days after the onset of symptoms. These showed motor amplitudes reduced by 79–95% in the left lower extremity when compared with the right. Conduction velocities and sensory amplitudes were normal. Needle examination revealed fibrillations and positive sharp waves in the left tibialis anterior and medial gastrocnemius muscles. There was decreased recruitment and increased firing rate in these muscles, as well as the left quadriceps muscle. Needle examination of the left and right paraspinal muscles was normal. MRI of the lumbosacral spine showed intradural nerve root enhancement greater on the left, affecting L1–S1 (fig 1). Serum tested positive for WNV IgM antibody by enzyme immunoassay, and CSF results were reported as equivocal (exact titres are not provided by the Illinois Department of Public Health).

Figure 1

Magnetic resonance imaging of T1 weighted pre- (A1, B1) and post- (A2, B2) gadolinium axial sections of the lumbar cord. Levels L1–2 (A1, A2) and L2–3 (B1, B2) are pictured, showing greater enhancement of nerve roots on the left (arrows).

Suspected aetiologies before the results of WNV testing included an infectious or postinfectious radiculitis, plexitis, or anterior myelitis. He was treated with three days of intravenous methylprednisolone. During his hospital course, he had complete resolution of his hip pain and mild improvement in strength. Deep tendon reflexes returned within two days, and he was discharged home.


Decreased muscle strength can occur in up to one third of patients infected with WNV, and complete flaccid paralysis is seen in up to 10%.1 In the cases described, however, weakness was usually associated with an encephalitis or aseptic meningitis, and the pathology appeared to be localised to the peripheral nerve. Recent reports, including ours, describe an isolated acute flaccid monoparesis in which the electrodiagnostic findings are consistent with either motor axon or anterior horn cell pathology.3,4 Our report is further differentiated by radiographic evidence which confirmed asymmetrical nerve root involvement with good clinical correlation. The absence of sensory findings can be explained by relative sparing of the dorsal roots on both electrodiagnostic testing and MRI. Finally, the simultaneous onset of constitutional symptoms, hip pain, and leg weakness in our case suggests that the WNV infection can cause motor weakness during the initial viraemia, rather than there being a postviral autoimmune aetiology for the weakness.

The mechanism of weakness associated with WNV infection continues to be unclear. It has been hypothesised that it is similar to poliovirus, causing an acute flaccid paralysis in humans by attacking motor neurones directly.3,4 This theory has been supported pathologically, as WNV has been isolated in the spinal cords of birds and horses, causing a similar paralytic syndrome.5,6 However, MRI studies of acute poliovirus infection have shown increased signal in the anterior horn,7 whereas the most recent cases of WNV associated weakness have not had any of these MRI abnormalities.4 Further, the EMG findings in all reported cases do not differentiate between a motor axonopathy and anterior horn cell pathology, making either location possible as a cause of weakness.

To our knowledge, this is the first case to present MRI findings supporting ventral root involvement in a case of flaccid paralysis associated with WNV. We propose that anterior radiculopathy should be considered in addition to motor neurone pathology when assessing pure motor weakness caused by WNV.


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