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Brown-Sequard Syndrome Treatment & Management

  • Author: Carol Vandenakker-Albanese, MD; Chief Editor: Stephen Kishner, MD, MHA  more...
Updated: Aug 16, 2016

Approach Considerations

Special care must be taken in preparing a life-care plan for a patient with Brown-Séquard syndrome. The incompleteness of the syndrome in conjunction with a good prognosis for recovery makes determination of needs over a lifetime difficult. If evaluated too early, needs may be grossly overestimated. If evaluation is performed at the time of maximal function, the expected difficulties and changes associated with aging with disability must not be forgotten.

Any SCI, regardless of degree of completeness, results in significant alterations in function of the respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive, urinary, musculoskeletal, and integumentary systems. Decreased pulmonary function, altered cardiovascular dynamics, neurogenic bowel and bladder dysfunctions, hypercalcemia, osteoporosis, heterotopic ossification, and insensate skin may not be avoidable, but secondary medical complications often are preventable with expert care. The following secondary complications need to be addressed with aggressive preventive measures and early treatment:

  • Development of pulmonary infections and respiratory insufficiency
  • Uncontrolled autonomic dysreflexia
  • Bowel impaction
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Pressure ulcers

Avoidance of medical complications reduces morbidity and mortality; it also speeds the rehabilitation process.

Pharmacologic therapy

Medication use is dependent on the secondary effects of SCI. Medication may be indicated for spasticity, pain, or a number of other possible complications. In general, persons with Brown-Séquard syndrome regain significant function, and many medications are not needed long term.

Nasogastric tube insertion

Nasogastric (NG) tube insertion and subsequent low-wall suction may help to prevent aspiration. Additionally, these patients are prone to developing ileus in the acute stage.

Cervical spine immobilization

Cervical spine immobilization, or lower dorsal vertebra immobilization, is required with trauma or suspicion of an unstable spine. Hard-collar immobilization or Gardner Wells tongs may be required if cervical fracture/injury is identified.

Patient transfer

Transfer to a level I trauma center or to a facility with expertise in the care of spinal cord injuries is appropriate; however, transfer should not impede the overall evaluation of these patients, including assessment for additional injuries.


A number of community outreach programs have been developed to educate young people about the risks of traumatic injury associated with certain behaviors. Results of such injury, such as SCI, are described in detail, and preventive measures are outlined. These programs have been found to have a positive impact on the rate of injury.


Prehospital Care

The key to successful prehospital care of patients with Brown-Séquard syndrome is to suspect a cervical or other spinal injury. A low threshold for cervical spine/backboard immobilization is appropriate. One issue with prehospital evaluation of cervical spine injury is the potential for assumption of a complete spinal cord lesion rather than an incomplete lesion. Prehospital providers must be educated regarding the findings of incomplete cord syndromes and how to make a brief assessment of complete versus incomplete cord lesion.


Emergency Department Care

Care in the emergency department (ED) consists of a thorough evaluation, including a neurologic examination for level of injury. Careful cervical spine/dorsal spine immobilization is necessary, with elimination of neck movement.

The nature of sensory loss makes investigation of other injuries more difficult. This mandates a thorough and complete physical examination, with imaging studies used to supplement the exam.

Administer steroids in a timely manner: Initiate steroids promptly on the basis of the initial ED evaluation.


Physical Therapy

Physical therapy intervention starts in the acute care phase of treatment.[20] Therapy goals include the following:

  • Maintaining strength in neurologically intact muscles
  • Maintaining range of motion in joints
  • Preventing skin breakdown by proper positioning and weight shifting
  • Improving respiratory function by positioning and breathing exercises
  • Achieving early mobilization to increase tolerance of the upright position
  • Providing emotional and educational support for the patient and his/her family

As a person with SCI advances through acute rehabilitation, physical therapy addresses mobility issues. Functional movement starts with bed mobility, followed by transfers, wheelchair mobility, and, in many cases of Brown-Séquard syndrome, ambulation. Appropriate equipment must be prescribed, and the proper use of the equipment should be taught to the patient and caregivers.

Prior to discharge, the patient's home is evaluated for accessibility and modifications, as well as for the need for adaptive equipment. The need for orthotics is assessed and recommended. After fitting, training with the orthotic device is vital to functional use.

Because neurologic recovery often continues following discharge from acute inpatient rehabilitation, physical therapy should continue in the outpatient setting. Frequent reassessments are indicated to set new functional goals and to modify treatment as needed. Patients and caregivers should be instructed in home exercise programs that are designed to maintain the patients’ strength, flexibility, and balance.


Occupational Therapy

To enable patients with Brown-Séquard syndrome to regain as much independence as possible in activities of daily living, occupational therapy is essential. Upper extremity function is assessed carefully and then is used to learn new techniques, with or without the use of adaptive equipment, for the performance of oral-facial hygiene, feeding, and dressing. Head control, upper extremity strength, and trunk balance are developed to enable the patient to accomplish these tasks.

Transfers and wheelchair mobility are addressed in conjunction with the physical therapist. Driving assessment, adaptations, and training are performed when appropriate.

Patients with Brown-Séquard syndrome typically show neurologic improvement over the course of the first year after onset and may advance through several stages of independence in performing activities of daily living. Occupational therapy should be continued for as long as the patient shows improvement in functional status.


Recreational Therapy

A person's leisure and recreational needs often increase after a significant change in physical function. Although patients with Brown-Séquard syndrome may regain more function than do most patients with SCI, consideration of recreational needs is still important. Premorbid interests are assessed and incorporated into the development of adaptive sports, leisure activities, and a recreational program.

The recreational therapist re-introduces a person with a disability into the community to develop the confidence needed for re-integration into society. The therapist also serves as a source of information and as a liaison to community programs for the disabled.


Spinal Reduction, Stabilization, and Decompression

Surgical intervention in traumatic SCI has been controversial, focusing primarily on spinal stability.[14, 21] The need for prompt reduction of any spinal deformity is well accepted. The reduction can be achieved either posturally or operatively.

Stabilization of the reduced spine to prevent further injury to the cord is more controversial. Stability may come from direct surgical repair with bone grafting and (often) instrumentation or from natural healing or autofusion in an orthosis. Most stable spinal injuries are treated nonoperatively, while unstable injuries are treated surgically.

Surgical decompression of the spinal canal may be indicated for an incomplete syndrome in which residual compression is present. Nontraumatic etiologies of Brown-Séquard syndrome usually involve mechanical compression or herniation of the spinal cord and require surgical decompression.[18]



Acute consultations are based on patient symptomatology and the etiology of the Brown-Séquard syndrome. Although patients with Brown-Séquard syndrome frequently regain bladder function, consultation with a urologist is required most commonly for evaluation of neurogenic bladder dysfunction.[22] In addition, it is essential that physical medicine and rehabilitation specialists be consulted early on in the initial stages of patient care.

Other specialists who should be available for consultation over the course of the patient's rehabilitation include the following:

  • Orthopedist
  • Neurosurgeon
  • General surgeon
  • Hematologist-oncologist
  • Infectious disease specialist
  • Pulmonologist
  • Cardiologist
  • Gastroenterologist
  • Neurologist
  • Psychiatrist
  • General medicine specialist
  • Dentist

Long-Term Monitoring

Basic medical follow-up care for SCI is recommended every 1-3 years. The suggested assessments include full history and physical (eg, weight, vital signs), vital capacity if the injury level is above T6, routine blood tests, neurologic evaluation with ASIA scoring, and cardiac risk assessment. Urologic evaluation also is recommended, but it is not necessary if a patient with Brown-Séquard syndrome has regained normal bladder function.

Brown-Séquard syndrome carries a more favorable prognosis than do most SCIs, with ongoing neurologic recovery occurring for up to 2 years following the injury. As long as a person's neurologic status is improving and his/her rehabilitation goals change, ongoing physical and occupational therapy are indicated. Following achievement of an optimal functional level, assessment by a physical therapist, occupational therapist, psychosocial counselor, and therapeutic recreation specialist is recommended every 1-3 years.

In the patient who recovers ambulatory function, regular evaluation of any orthotics or assistive devices also is necessary, to ensure safety and prevent skin breakdown.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Carol Vandenakker-Albanese, MD Professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of California Davis Health System; Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Residency Director, University of California, Davis, School of Medicine

Carol Vandenakker-Albanese, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, North American Spine Society, American College of Sports Medicine, Association of Academic Physiatrists

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Holly Zhao, MD, PhD Assistant Professor of Clinical Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of California Davis Health System

Holly Zhao, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American Medical Association, Association of Academic Physiatrists

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Stephen Kishner, MD, MHA Professor of Clinical Medicine, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Residency Program Director, Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans

Stephen Kishner, MD, MHA is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Michael T Andary, MD, MS Professor, Residency Program Director, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine

Michael T Andary, MD, MS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine, American Medical Association, and Association of Academic Physiatrists

Disclosure: Allergan Honoraria Speaking and teaching; Pfizer Honoraria Speaking and teaching

Michael S Beeson, MD, MBA, FACEP Professor of Emergency Medicine, Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine and Pharmacy; Attending Faculty, Akron General Medical Center

Michael S Beeson, MD, MBA, FACEP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, Council of Emergency Medicine Residency Directors, National Association of EMS Physicians, and Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Samuel M Keim, MD Associate Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Arizona College of Medicine

Samuel M Keim, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, and Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Elizabeth A Moberg-Wolff, MD Associate Professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, Medical College of Wisconsin

Elizabeth A Moberg-Wolff, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy for Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine and American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

Disclosure: Medtronic Neurological Grant/research funds Speaking and teaching

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

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American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) standard neurologic classification of spinal cord injury.
American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) Impairment Scale.
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