Cold paresis may occur in multifocal motor neuropathy and lower motor neuron disease. It was proposed to reflect nerve lesions where axons are depolarized due to loss of Na/K-pump activity. In those circumstances, a further decrease in pump activity by cooling may induce extra depolarization, conduction block, and weakness. Evidence for this hypothesis is incomplete because it is unknown if cold induces depolarization in human motor axons and other factors may contribute to the symptoms. To solve these questions, we examined 10 normal subjects. At 37, 25, 20, and 15°C we assessed: excitability in the median nerve, decrement on 3-Hz stimulation, pulsed Doppler of a wrist artery, and thenar muscle strength. Cooling induced: (1) findings compatible with axonal depolarization on excitability testing (fanning-in of threshold electrotonus, steepened current threshold relation, increased refractory period, decreased super- and subexcitability), (2) decreased Doppler peak systolic velocity without causing ischemia, (3) decreased muscle strength and impaired muscle relaxation. Decrement tests and compound muscle action potential amplitude remained normal. The excitability findings induced by cooling were best explained by axonal depolarization due to the effect of temperature on Na/K-pump activity. The induced weakness may be explained not only by this mechanism but also by impaired muscle contraction.
© 2010 Peripheral Nerve Society.