Doctors explain what may be causing Mitch McConnell’s ‘freezing’ spells

Parkinson’s disease or traumatic brain injury may be to blame, experts say

Maggie O'Neill
Tuesday 05 September 2023 05:54 BST
Mitch McConnell appears to freeze again as he is asked about running for re-election

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, 81, froze and appeared unable to answer a question at a press event in his home state of Kentucky on Wednesday.

It’s the second time in about a month Mr McConnell has paused then received help from aides while standing at the lectern; on 26 July, he fell silent at a press briefing on Capitol Hill before being escorted away. On both occasions, Mr McConnell’s aides remained calm and gently assisted him.

Experts say the freezing episodes could be a result of injuries Mr McConnell suffered earlier this year. In March, he was hospitalised for five nights after a fall left him with a concussion and a fractured rib. He underwent physical therapy after he was released from the hospital, as The Independent previously reported.

CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and medical reporter, said Wednesday evening that the freezing episodes may be connected to Mr McConnell’s falls. “There’s a long list of possibilities here,” Dr Gupta said. “I think what we saw was pretty concerning, and I think most people could see that. It was similar to what we saw in July where there’s this freezing: the freezing of the speech, the freezing of the body, the tight grasping of the side of the lectern.”

He went on to discuss Mr McConnell’s previous health issues, noting they may be linked to these instances. “There’s been a timeline of things that we looked at. If you go back over time, he’s had these falls, [and] he’s had difficulty clearly hearing reporters’ questions going back to earlier in this summer,” Dr Gupta said. “He’s had significant falls, I believe, in the past, where he’s dislocated his shoulder.”

Dr Gupta said it’s worth noting that Mr McConnell’s aides haven’t seemed particularly concerned during his two freezing episodes. “One of the things that’s really noticeable to me is that when his aides approached him, they did not seem so surprised by this,” Dr Gupta said. “You got the impression this happens much more often [because] they didn’t seem particularly alarmed by it…If the aides are not surprised by this, his doctors may not be surprised either. These types of things may be happening more often.”

If Mr McConnell suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) when he fell in March, that could be causing the symptoms he’s been exhibiting in press conferences. Symptoms of TBI include slurred speech, unusual behaviour, confusion, agitation, looking drowsy, and the inability to recognise people or places, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Fox News medical contributor Dr Marc Siegel also speculated about what may have happened to Mr McConnell Wednesday evening. “I haven’t examined him, and I don’t have any background on this, except that I’ve talked to some people in congress and in the senate,” Dr. Siegel said. He said he thought Mr McConnell may be suffering from Parkinson’s disease, symptoms of which include stiffness, uncontrollable movements, and difficulty walking and talking, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“In its later stages, it can give you a freeze, and it can also explain why no one around him in these freezes is panicking and saying, ‘This could be a stroke or this could be a seizure.’” Dr Siegel said Mr McConnell’s symptoms could be caused by either of those issues; however, he added, if his aides were concerned that could be happening, they would have presumably tried to call for help, which they didn’t.

“You would rush him into immediate treatment and analysis. You’d do an MRI, you would do an EEG to see if it could be a seizure,” Dr Siegel said. “But if it’s Parkinson’s, you already know about that, and somebody diagnosed it clinically by doing an examination. I’m not saying that’s what it is, but I think what’s really striking here is that alarm bells didn’t immediately go off among medical personnel around.”

Mr McConnell also had polio as a child, Dr Siegel continued, but that wouldn’t explain the freezes he’s been experiencing on camera, he said.

If Mr McConnell has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s—or a similar disease—he may be considering retirement, Dr Siegel continued: “If he has latter stages of a neurological disease, I would think he would consider stepping down.”

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