Vertigo and dizziness are common neurological symptoms in general practice. Most patients have benign peripheral vestibular disorders, but some have dangerous central causes. Recent research has shown that bedside oculomotor examinations accurately discriminate central from peripheral lesions in those with new, acute, continuous vertigo/dizziness with nausea/vomiting, gait unsteadiness, and nystagmus, known as the acute vestibular syndrome.
A 56-year-old man presented to the emergency department with acute vestibular syndrome for 1 week. The patient had no focal neurological symptoms or signs. The presence of direction-fixed, horizontal nystagmus suppressed by visual fixation without vertical ocular misalignment (skew deviation) was consistent with an acute peripheral vestibulopathy, but bilaterally normal vestibuloocular reflexes, confirmed by quantitative horizontal head impulse testing, strongly indicated a central localization. Because of a long delay in care, the patient left the emergency department without treatment. He returned 1 week later with progressive gait disturbance, limb ataxia, myoclonus, and new cognitive deficits. His subsequent course included a rapid neurological decline culminating in home hospice placement and death within 1 month. Magnetic resonance imaging revealed restricted diffusion involving the basal ganglia and cerebral cortex. Spinal fluid 14-3-3 protein was elevated. The rapidly progressive clinical course with dementia, ataxia, and myoclonus plus corroborative neuroimaging and spinal fluid findings confirmed a clinicoradiographic diagnosis of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease.
To our knowledge, this is the first report of an initial presentation of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease closely mimicking vestibular neuritis, expanding the known clinical spectrum of prion disease presentations. Despite the initial absence of neurological signs, the central lesion location was differentiated from a benign peripheral vestibulopathy at the first visit using simple bedside vestibular tests. Familiarity with these tests could help providers prevent initial misdiagnosis of important central disorders in patients presenting vertigo or dizziness.