Acute non-traumatic tetraparesis – Differential diagnosis

Renato Oliveira, Filipa Ramalho Rocha, Tomás Teodoro, Miguel Oliveira Santos

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Introduction: Potentially life-threatening disorders may present in the emergency department with acute tetraparesis, and their recognition is crucial for an appropriate management and timely treatment. Our review aims to systematize the differential diagnosis of acute non-traumatic tetraparesis. Results: Causes of tetraparesis can be classified based on the site of defect: upper motor neuron (UMN), peripheral nerve, neuromuscular junction or muscle. History of present illness should include the distribution of weakness (symmetric/asymmetric or distal/proximal/diffuse) and associated clinical features (pain, sensory findings, dysautonomia, and cranial nerve abnormalities such as diplopia and dysphagia). Neurological examination, particularly tendon reflexes, helps further in the localization of nerve lesions and distinction between UMN and lower motor neuron. Ancillary studies include blood and cerebral spinal fluid analysis, neuroaxis imaging, electromyography, muscle magnetic resonance and muscle biopsy. Conclusions: Acute tetraparesis is still a debilitating and potentially serious neurological condition. Despite all the supplementary ancillary tests, the neurological examination is the key to achieve a correct diagnosis. The identification of life-threatening neurologic disorders is pivotal, since failing to identify patients at risk of complications, such as acute respiratory failure, may have catastrophic results.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)116-124
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Clinical Neuroscience
Publication statusPublished - May 2021


  • Acute tetraparesis
  • Brainstem stroke
  • Myelopathy
  • Myopathy
  • Neuromuscular junction disorder
  • Polyneuropathy


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