• Clinical science

Cranial nerve palsies


Cranial nerve palsy is characterized by a decreased or complete loss of function of one or more cranial nerves. The etiology may be congenital or acquired. Multiple cranial neuropathies are common, particularly in lesions arising from tumors, trauma, impaired blood flow, and infections. While a diagnosis can usually be made based on clinical features, further investigation is often warranted to determine the specific etiology, which should determine the course of treatment.

Cranial nerve types and functions

Cranial nerve Nerve Type Nerve Function
I Olfactory nerve
  • Sensory
II Optic nerve
  • Sensory
III Oculomotor nerve
  • Motor (somatic)
IV Trochlear nerve
  • Motor
V Trigeminal nerve
  • Sensory
  • Motor
VI Abducens nerve
  • Motor
VII Facial nerve
  • Sensory
  • Taste perception: anterior ⅔ of the tongue (chorda tympani)
  • Motor (somatic)
VIII Vestibulocochlear nerve
  • Sensory
  • Balance and equilibrium: vestibular nerve
  • Hearing: cochlear nerve
IX Glossopharyngeal nerve
  • Sensory
  • Motor (somatic)
X Vagus nerve
  • Sensory (somatic)
  • Sensory (visceral)
  • Motor (somatic)
  • Swallowing
    • Middle and inferior pharyngeal constrictor muscles (passage of bolus)
    • Palatoglossus muscle (elevates posterior tongue upon swallowing)
  • Speech: laryngeal muscles
XI Accessory spinal nerve
  • Motor
XII Hypoglossal nerve
  • Motor
  • Tongue protrusion: intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of the tongue


Origin and pathways of the cranial nerves

Cranial Nerve Nerve Origin Pathway of the cranial nerve
  • Medulla
  • Postolivary sulcusjugular foramen (formed by temporal and occipital bones)
    • Synapses
      • Superior (jugular) ganglion
      • Inferior (nodose) ganglion
      • Intramural ganglia of visceral organs (e.g., esophagus, stomach)
  • Medulla
  • Medulla

Cranial mononeuropathies

A cranial nerve mononeuropathy is a condition in which only a single cranial nerve or nerve group is damaged. The clinical presentation of cranial nerve mononeuropathies depends on the underlying cause as well as the region that is affected along its pathway.

Olfactory nerve palsy

Optic nerve palsy

Oculomotor nerve lesion (III)


Structure Anatomy Typical lesions Localizing clinical features
Oculomotor nuclei
  • A pair of oculomotor nuclei are located at the level of the midbrain
  • Fascicles (efferent fibers) from each oculomotor nucleus pass through the red nuclei and the emerge anteriorly as the oculomotor nerve
Basilar segment
  • Recent history of headache
  • Isolated oculomotor nerve palsy with a fixed, dilated pupil
  • Tentorial herniation
Intracavernous segment
  • Associated palsies of the trochlear (IV), trigeminal (V1, V2 nerve), and/or abducens (VI) nerve
Intraorbital segment
Ischemic microangiopathy can affect any part of the oculomotor nerve from the basilar segment and typically results in an oculomotor nerve palsy with pupillary sparing.

Isolated oculomotor nerve palsy

For more details about oculomotor nerve lesions and drugs affecting pupillary size, see the learning card pupillary abnormalities.

With an isolated ocuLOVEmotor nerve palsy, nobody loves you when you are down and out (the pupil points outwards and downwards)!

Compression of the oculomotor nerve can cause isolated pupillary dilation due to injury of the parasympathetic fibers. Microangiopathy (e.g., due to diabetes mellitus) typically affects the deeper somatic fibers first, causing ophthalmoplegia without pupillary dilation.

Trochlear nerve palsy (IV)

Trigeminal nerve lesion (V)

  • Etiology
  • Clinical features
    • Peripheral trigeminal nerve lesions
      • Ophthalmic nerve (V1) is affected → absent corneal reflex (afferent limb), anesthesia of the forehead
      • Maxillary nerve (V2) is affected; anesthesia of the midface
      • Mandibular nerve (V3) is affected anesthesia of the chin, lower lip, and anterior two-thirds of the tongue; muscles of mastication are paralyzed
        • The jaw deviates towards the side of the lesion because of unopposed action from the opposite pterygoid muscle.
      • Involvement of any of the three branches can cause trigeminal neuralgia.
    • Lesion of the tensor tympani branch → hearing impairment (particularly difficulty hearing low-pitched sounds)
    • Lesions of the trigeminal nerve nuclei: Depending on which nuclei are affected; , the patient may present with ipsilateral weakness of muscles of mastication and/or ipsilateral loss of sensation.
    • Complete trigeminal nerve lesions are rare.


Abducens nerve palsy (VI)

References:[6][7] [8]

Facial nerve lesion (VII)

Vestibulocochlear nerve lesion (VIII)


Glossopharyngeal nerve lesion (IX)

  • Etiology: often unknown; may be associated with compression by a blood vessel
  • Clinical features

Lesions that affect the glossopharyngeal nerve typically also affect the vagus nerve because the glossopharyngeal nerve exits the medulla above the vagus nerve.

Vagus nerve lesion (X)

Accessory nerve lesion (XI)

Hypoglossal nerve lesion (XII)

  • Etiology
    • Tumors
    • Trauma
  • Clinical features
    • Atrophy and fasciculation of the tongue on the side of the lesion
    • The tongue deviates to the side of the lesion when protruded.

Multiple cranial neuropathies

Lesion Etiology Clinical features
Chronic meningitis Any cranial nerve
Jugular foramen syndrome CN IX, X, and XI
Cavernous sinus syndrome CN III, IV, V1,V2, VI
Cerebellopontine angle syndrome CN V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X
Guillain-Barré syndrome

Any cranial nerve; most commonly III, VII, IX, X

Multiple sclerosis


Connection between III, IV, and VI