Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, is a chronic infectious disease with many manifestations. Though still a major health concern and leading cause of peripheral neuropathy in the developing world, it is rare in the United States, with only about 150 cases reported each year. Nevertheless, it is imperative that neurosurgeons consider it in the differential diagnosis of neuropathy.
The causative organism is Mycobacterium leprae, which infects and damages Schwann cells in the peripheral nervous system, leading first to sensory and then to motor deficits. A rare presentation of Hansen’s disease is pure neuritic leprosy. It is characterized by nerve involvement without the characteristic cutaneous stigmata. The authors of this report describe a case of pure neuritic leprosy presenting as ulnar nerve neuropathy with corresponding radiographic, electrodiagnostic, and histopathological data.
This 11-year-old, otherwise healthy male presented with progressive right-hand weakness and numbness with no cutaneous abnormalities. Physical examination and electrodiagnostic testing revealed findings consistent with a severe ulnar neuropathy at the elbow. Magnetic resonance imaging revealed diffuse thickening and enhancement of the ulnar nerve and narrowing at the cubital tunnel. The patient underwent ulnar nerve decompression with biopsy. Pathology revealed acid-fast organisms within the nerve, which was pathognomonic for Hansen’s disease. He was started on antibiotic therapy, and on follow-up he had improved strength and sensation in the ulnar nerve distribution.
Pure neuritic leprosy, though rare in the United States, should be considered in the differential diagnosis of those presenting with peripheral neuropathy and a history of travel to leprosy-endemic areas. The long incubation period of M. leprae, the ability of leprosy to mimic other conditions, and the low sensitivity of serological tests make clinical, electrodiagnostic, and radiographic evaluation necessary for diagnosis. Prompt diagnosis and treatment is imperative to prevent permanent neurological injury.