Lhermitte's Sign: Symptoms and Treatments

What Causes This Painful Syndrome and How to Manage It

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If you have been told that the electrical shock-like sensation that runs down your back, arms, or legs is Lhermitte's sign, you may be concerned about what this means for you.

This can occur with a number of neurological conditions, and while it is most closely associated with multiple sclerosis (MS), you may experience Lhermitte's sign if you have any problem that affects your cervical (upper) spine.

Despite being called "Lhermitte's sign," the first people who described this phenomenon were Pierre Marie and Chatelin in 1917. Jean Lhermitte was a French neurologist who published an article on the subject in 1924, which led to wider knowledge about the symptom.

Symptoms of Lhermitte's Sign

Lhermitte's sign is a sense of electricity that shoots down the spine, often out through the arms and legs as well. It is described as uncomfortable or unusual but is rarely painful.

You may spontaneously experience it, or you may feel it during your physical examination. If you are being evaluated for a neurological disease, your healthcare provider may ask you to flex your neck forward as part of your examination to identify Lhermitte's sign.

This sign typically occurs intermittently, and you might not experience Lhermitte's sign every time you bend your neck.

The symptoms will last for a few seconds at a time, and they can be worrisome if you don't know why you are having these sensations.

Causes of Lhermitte's Sign

Lhermitte's sign is caused by dysfunction of the dorsal (posterior, or back) columns of the cervical spinal cord, which are responsible for transmitting information about light touch, vibration, and proprioception (the sense of where your body is in space) to the brain.

Lhermitte's sign does not always mean multiple sclerosis (MS), though it is classically associated with this condition. MS is characterized by episodes of weakness, sensory changes, and/or visual deficits.

In addition to MS, Lhermitte's sign can be the result of many other problems that affect the cervical spinal cord. These include:

  • Myelopathy (subacute combined degeneration) from B12 deficiency
  • Cervical spine inflammation, which can be caused by conditions such as lupus, an infection, or Bechet's disease
  • Transverse myelitis (a sudden episode of spine dysfunction)
  • Cervical spinal cord tumors
  • Spondylosis (arthritis in the neck)
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation to the spine
  • Trauma
  • Arnold-Chiari malformation (the brainstem is located in a lower position than it should be)
  • Nitrous oxide toxicity—there is often a "reverse Lhermitte's sign," in which the electrical sensation travels in the opposite direction, from the feet toward the head

Triggers of Lhermitte's Sign

Lhermitte's sign is usually triggered by lowering your chin towards your chest. This is why it's sometimes called the "barber chair phenomenon."

People who have conditions that can cause Lhermitte's sign may have additional triggers such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Fevers
  • Stress
  • Heat

Diagnosis of Lhermitte's Sign

If you have Lhermitte's sign, your healthcare provider will do a thorough evaluation to find the cause. The most important aspect of your medical evaluation is your medical history.

Any other complaints you have will direct your healthcare provider to the cause of your problem. For example, if you have double vision, this suggests that multiple sclerosis could be the cause. If you have joint pain, arthritis could be the cause.

Your physical examination is another very important aspect of the evaluation. Your healthcare provider can detect changes such as weakness, decreased sensation, reflex changes, and swelling in your neck to localize the area where the problem is coming from.

Diagnostic tests such as cervical spine MRI or lumbar puncture (LP, also called a spinal tap) can help identify the condition that is causing you to experience Lhermitte's sign.

GPR - Global Postural Re-education, neck adjustment
MesquitaFMS / Getty Images

Treatment of Lhermitte's Sign

Lhermitte's sign isn't curable, but treatment can help you manage your symptoms. Treatment is focused on two things:

  • Managing the cause of Lhermitte's sign
  • Maintaining your comfort if the experience is interfering with your life

Lifestyle Changes

Certain lifestyle and noninvasive approaches can help prevent symptoms, including:

It's important to have a therapist assist you in learning these approaches because some exercises can actually make Lhermitte's sign worse.

Medical Interventions

Medical interventions may be necessary if simple lifestyle modifications are not enough to manage your symptoms. Examples include:

  • Acupuncture or massage
  • Neck braces or collars can prevent your head movements from triggering your symptoms
  • Spinal cord stimulation: In published care reports, spinal cord stimulation was used to treat Lhermitte's signs as well as an implantable device (TENS units)


Certain medications can help reduce discomfort if you have prolonged symptoms, and can also reduce pain related to your neurological condition.

  • Antiseizure medications (anticonvulsants): Prescriptions such as Neurontin (gabapentin) and Lyrica (pregabalin) may help with pain
  • Antidepressants: Tricyclic antidepressants are often used to help manage chronic pain
  • Steroids: Oral steroids have significant side effects when used long-term, but may be used for an acute flare up when inflammation is the cause

A Word From Verywell

If you have recurrent Lhermitte's sign, the most important thing to keep in mind is that it is safe for you to move your neck and arms when the symptoms occur. However, since neck movements can trigger the electrical shock-like sensations, you may inadvertently begin to stiffen your arms or neck.

Also remember, it is always important to contact your healthcare provider to investigate the cause of this sign. Be sure to maintain regular exercise so that you don't develop tightness of your neck and shoulder muscles as you are coping with your condition.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does Lhermitte's sign always indicate multiple sclerosis?

    No. Lhermitte’s sign is most closely associated with multiple sclerosis, but it is not exclusive to MS. Lhermitte’s sign can also occur with cervical spine problems such as a herniated disk or as a delayed side effect of radiation treatment.

  • What does Lhermitte's sign feel like?

    Lhermitte's sign feels like a short and intensive electric-shock-like sensation that starts at the neck and travels down the spine. The sensation can sometimes also travel down the arms and legs. 

    Lhermitte’s sign is not painful but can be uncomfortable. It may feel like a wave going through your entire body. 

  • What causes Lhermitte’s sign?

    Lhermitte’s sign is caused by a dysfunction of the cervical spinal cord. It is commonly associated with multiple sclerosis, but it can also be caused by other problems with the cervical spine. It can be due to myelopathy from a B12 deficiency, Arnold-Chiari malformation, lupus, Bechet’s disease, a tumor, trauma, or a side effect of chemotherapy or radiation. 

  • Is there a cure for Lhermitte's sign?

    There isn't a cure, but avoiding triggers and trying available treatments can help manage the symptoms that may come and go.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Peter Pressman, MD
Peter Pressman, MD, is a board-certified neurologist developing new ways to diagnose and care for people with neurocognitive disorders.