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What is Meningismus?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Meningismus is a collection of symptoms that are grouped together and may suggest certain diseases. What is confusing about this term is that it may or may not be associated with diseases like meningitis. Sometimes this term is used to describe a few of the main symptoms of meningitis when it is not present, and is considered separate from the disease. In other circumstances, doctors might use this term or the term meningism, to refer to all symptoms it represents being present in meningitis, in instances of cerebral damage or in other disease that could cause the symptoms.

There are several symptoms that can thus be associated with the condition. One of the big ones is stiffness or difficulty moving the neck. In particular, a person may not be able to touch their chin to their chest, and may have difficulty looking up. This is also called nuchal rigidity.

Another of the symptoms that is part of meningismus is how people react to light. If they show difficulty in bright lights and must squint the eyes or look away, they may be suffering from photophobia. They thus fulfill the second aspect of meningism.

When these two conditions are present with headache that is frequently very severe, meningitis, brain hemorrhage or other illness must be considered. There are other ways to diagnose these conditions, but getting a person to the doctor is the best bet since meningitis and brain hemorrhage are medically urgent situations. In fact, when children have symptoms that include things like high fever and headache, doctors frequently advise parents to check nuchal rigidity by having a child touch chin to chest. If this is painful or impossible, the child should get medical attention immediately, since swelling of the meninges, membranes that provide protection for the central nervous system, is extremely dangerous.

However, a child or adult could exhibit all of these symptoms without swelling of the meninges, brain hemorrhage or meningitis. It’s still better to always be safe under these circumstances. When these conditions are ruled out, meningismus could indicate entirely different diseases like toxic shock syndrome. Nevertheless the three symptoms called meningismus should always be taken seriously.

When a person with meningismus goes to the doctor or hospital, there are better diagnostics for determining the underlying problem. Meningitis can be confirmed in diagnosis by performing various tests like blood tests and spinal taps. Any bleeding in the brain is usually visualized on CT (computer axial tomography) scans, MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging), or X-rays. Going by the strictest definition a person has meningismus if none of these tests are positive for meningitis or brain bleeds. In a more general sense, such tests can help rule out potential conditions and point doctors to other diseases or illnesses that might be causing the symptoms.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By BrainyGoat — On Feb 03, 2014

The combination of these these three symptoms are known as meningismus signs, and may indicate serious illness. If your child is experiencing these symptoms, you should seek emergency care immediately.

By RationallyMellow — On Feb 03, 2014

My child has a stiff neck, severe headache, and seems to be sensitive to light. Should I take her to the emergency room right away, or see if these symptoms disappear on their own?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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