Investigating focal weakness (summary)

Last revised by Assoc Prof Craig Hacking on 02 Apr 2018
This is a basic article for medical students and other non-radiologists

Investigating focal weakness makes up a large proportion of workload for neurologists and neuroradiologists. A wide range of serious CNS disorders can present with focal weakness. Appropriate timely imaging can guide diagnosis and treatment. 

Weakness can be due to changes in any part of the neurological system from muscle and neuromuscular junction, spinal cord or brain so history and examination are vital in guiding investigations and imaging.

Reference article

This is a summary article; we do not have a more in-depth reference article.

  • questions
    • is the weakness upper or lower motor neuron?
    • what is the distribution?
    • what was the speed of onset?
    • are there associated symptoms, e.g. headache, altered sensation
    • are there any co-morbidities, e.g. heart disease
  • investigations
    • CT
      • most useful in the acute setting
      • readily available
      • able to exclude most hemorrhage and space occupying lesions
      • additional use of contrast may be performed
    • MRI
      • more sensitive than CT
      • improved contrast resolution
      • advanced imaging techniques help narrow the differential
      • lesion characterization
  • making the request
    • know the question you are trying to answer
    • if the patient may be for thrombolysis, know the time of symptom onset
    • be aware of the local imaging protocol
  • common pathology

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Cases and figures

  • Case 1: acute MCA territory infarct
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  • Case 2: hemorrhagic stroke
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  • Case 3: metastatic malignant melanoma
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  • Case 4: L5/S1 disc protrusion
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