Ramsay Hunt Syndrome
Original Editor - Wendy Walker
Ramsay Hunt Syndrome [RHS] is a peripheral facial nerve palsy caused by an infection with the virus Varicella Zoster virus. It is generally accompanied by a rash (which can be painful) in the area of the ear and/or the mouth; however, occasionally there will be no rash visible. The auditory nerve may also be involved, leading to hearing and balance effects.
The syndrome is named after Dr J. Ramsey Hunt, the physician who first described the syndrome at a meeting of the American Neurological Association in 1906. He subsequently published his article on the subject in 2007.
Mechanism of Injury / Pathological Process
RHS is caused by reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (the virus which causes chickenpox) within the sensory ganglion of the Facial Nerve, the 7th Cranial Nerve. As the 8th Cranial Nerve, known as the Auditory Nerve or the Vestibulocochlear Nerve, lies next to the sensory ganglion of the facial nerve within the facial canal, both nerves are usually involved.
A painful red rash with blisters (as in the illustration) commonly appears; the rash can be on the pinna of the ear, within the ear canal, or inside the mouth. In addition, the patient may have general signs of a viral infection, including fever, headache, and general malaise.
A number of patients suffer from ipsilateral hearing loss, and/or tinnitus (ringing/noises in the ears) and/or balance difficulties including vertigo.
The diagnosis of RHS is a clinical diagnosis, made when the combination of ear pain, a herpetic rash in the ear or mouth and facial palsy occurs; however, virological studies can be used to confirm the diagnosis.
MRI scanning can be used to exclude other causes of facial and auditory nerve dysfunction (such as Acoustic Neuroma).
The following conditions can present in with similar symptoms:
- Bell's Palsy - this is the most common cause of sudden onset, non-traumatic facial palsy, and can be differentiated from RHS by the absence of severe otalgia (only mild pain in the region of the mastoid usually occurs in Bell's Palsy) and the absence of vesicles and involvement of other cranial nerves.
- Postherpetic Neuralgia - not associated with facial palsy
- Acoustic Neuroma - MRI scan should be used to exclude this
- Temporomandibular Disorders - not associated with facial palsy
- Trigeminal Neuralgia - not associated with facial palsy
Patients who suffer from vertigo may also benefit from vestibular suppressant medication, and analgesia may be required to control the ear pain.
Physiotherapy management of the facial paralysis or weakness is as detailed in the section on Facial Palsy.
It is also important to provide information on care of the eye in order to prevent the formation of corneal ulcer: see advice page on Dry Eye. Referral to an opthalmologist should be considered.
RHS patients with long term facial palsy may also start to experience dental problems: see advice page on Dental Issues in Facial Palsy.
The charity Facial Palsy UK have a page on RHS
The website RamsayHunt.org offers information and support
American organisation National Organization for Rare Disorders has a useful page on RHS
- J. Ramsay Hunt, On Herpetic Inflammations of the Geniculate Ganglion. A New Syndrome and its Complications. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, February 1907, Volume 34, Issue 2, pp 73-96
- Cai Z1, Li H, Wang X, Niu X, Ni P, Zhang W, Shao B. Prognostic factors of Bell's palsy and Ramsay Hunt syndrome. Medicine (Baltimore). 2017 Jan;96(2):e5898.
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- Daniel P Butler and Adriaan O Grobbelaar. Facial palsy: what can the multidisciplinary team do? J Multidiscip Healthc. 2017; 10: 377–381. Published online 2017 Sep 25. doi: 10.2147/JMDH.S125574