Incomplete spinal cord syndromes

Last updated: January 3, 2023

Summarytoggle arrow icon

Incomplete spinal cord syndromes are caused by lesions of the ascending or descending spinal tracts that result from trauma, spinal compression, or occlusion of spinal arteries. Central cord syndrome, anterior cord syndrome, posterior cord syndrome, and Brown-Séquard syndrome are the most common types of incomplete spinal cord syndromes. In contrast to a complete spinal cord injury, lesions only affect part of the cord, and patients present with a dissociated sensory loss. A spine MRI is the diagnostic modality of choice to determine the etiology, level, and extent of the lesion. Treatment depends on the underlying etiology. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to treat the underlying cause and to improve the patient's outcome. Spinal compression is a medical emergency and requires urgent treatment with steroids and decompressive surgery.

Overviewtoggle arrow icon

Basic neuroanatomy and function

Overview of incomplete spinal cord syndromes

Types of incomplete spinal cord syndromes
Syndrome Affected spinal tracts Etiology [1][2] Clinical features*
Central cord syndrome (most common)
  • Bilateral paresis: upper > lower extremities
Anterior cord syndrome
Posterior cord syndrome
  • Bilateral loss of proprioception, vibration, and touch sensation below the level of the lesion [3]
Brown-Séquard syndrome (hemisection syndrome)
  • Hemisection of the cord

*All syndromes present with dissociated sensory loss: a pattern of selective sensory loss (“dissociation of modalities”), which suggests a focal lesion of a single tract within the spinal cord (or brainstem). [4]

Overview of incomplete spinal cord lesions

Spinal cord lesions
Pathophysiology Affected spinal tracts Clinical features
  • Symmetrical loss of:
    • Pain and temperature
    • Sensation
  • Bilateral, symmetrical dysesthetic pain
  • Affects neck, shoulders, and arms (cape-like distribution)
  • Other: Horner syndrome
Spinal muscular atrophy
  • Congenital motor neuron disease: autosomal recessive SMN1 mutation → defective snRNP assembly
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis
  • Autoimmune inflammation (via activation of autoreactive T-cells), demyelination, and axonal degeneration
  • Poliovirus enters the bloodstream → invasion and inflammation of the brain and spinal cord
Tabes dorsalis
Vitamin B12 deficiency
Cauda equina syndrome
Conus medullaris syndrome
  • Damage (e.g., trauma) to the spinal cord segments T12–L2

Central cord syndrometoggle arrow icon


Anterior cord syndrometoggle arrow icon


  • Damage to the anterior two-thirds of the spinal cord, usually as a result of reduced blood flow or occlusion to the anterior spinal artery (ASA) anterior spinal artery syndrome (∼ 95% of cases) [6]

Etiology [7]

Clinical features

Vibration and proprioception are typically spared because of an intact dorsal column.




  • 10–15% functional recovery
  • If no recovery is evident and progressive after 24 hours, the prognosis is poor.

Posterior cord syndrometoggle arrow icon

Brown-Séquard syndrometoggle arrow icon

Autonomic symptoms are generally absent in Brown-Séquard syndrome because of unilateral involvement of the descending autonomic fibers.

Referencestoggle arrow icon

  1. Central Cord Syndrome. Updated: March 27, 2019. Accessed: December 3, 2020.
  2. Mohassel P, Wesselingh R, Katz Z, Mcarthur J, Gailloud P. Anterior spinal artery syndrome presenting as cervical myelopathy in a patient with subclavian steal syndrome. Neurol Clin Pract. 2013; 3 (4): p.358-360.doi: 10.1212/CPJ.0b013e318296f217 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  3. Vargas MI, Gariani J, Sztajzel R et al.. Spinal cord ischemia: practical imaging tips, pearls, and pitfalls. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2015; 36 (5): p.825-830.doi: 10.3174/ajnr.A4118 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  4. Hoehmann CL, Hitscherich K, Cuoco JA. The Artery of Adamkiewicz: Vascular Anatomy, Clinical Significance and Surgical Considerations. Int J Cardiovasc Res. 2016; 5: p.6.doi: 10.4172/2324-8602.1000284 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  5. Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al. Neuroscience. Sinauer Associates ; 2001
  6. Spinal Cord Compression. Updated: October 1, 2016. Accessed: March 2, 2017.
  7. Ribas ES, Schiff D. Spinal cord compression. Curr Treat Options Neurol. 2012; 14 (4): p.391-401.doi: 10.1007/s11940-012-0176-7 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  8. Kunam VK, Velayudhan V, Chaudhry ZA, Bobinski M, Smoker WRK, Reede DL. Incomplete Cord Syndromes: Clinical and Imaging Review. RadioGraphics. 2018; 38 (4): p.1201-1222.doi: 10.1148/rg.2018170178 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  9. Campbell WW. DeJong's The Neurologic Examination. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins ; 2012
  10. Tamori Y, Takahashi T, Suwa H, et al. Cervical Epidural Abscess Presenting with Brown-Sequard Syndrome in a Patient with Type 2 Diabetes. Internal Medicine. 2010; 49 (14): p.1391-1393.doi: 10.2169/internalmedicine.49.3419 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  11. Scivoletto G, Di donna V. Prediction of walking recovery after spinal cord injury. Brain Res Bull. 2009; 78 (1): p.43-51.doi: 10.1016/j.brainresbull.2008.06.002 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  12. McKinley W, Santos K, Meade M, Brooke K. Incidence and Outcomes of Spinal Cord Injury Clinical Syndromes. J Spinal Cord Med. 2007; 30 (3): p.215-224.

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