Health Illustrated Encyclopedia

Abnormal posturing


Abnormal posturing is different from what is commonly called "bad posture" or "slouching." Instead, it is a tendency to hold a particular body position, or to move one or more parts of the body in a particular way.

Certain abnormal posturing behaviors may indicate specific injuries to the nervous system.

Alternative Names

Pathologic posturing


Abnormal posturing may be a sign of serious central nervous system damage.

Normally, when a muscle contracts, the muscles on the opposite side of the joint provide some resistance to contraction. Abnormal posturing occurs when damage to the central nervous system (brain or spinal cord) results in complete or partial lack of opposition to muscle contraction in various muscle groups.

See the following types of abnormal postures:

  • Decerebrate posture -- rigid extension of the arms and legs, downward pointing of the toes, and backward arching of the head
  • Decorticate posture -- rigidity, flexion of the arms, clenched fists, and extended legs
  • Opisthotonos -- rigidity and severe arching of the back, with the head thrown backwards

An affected person may alternate between different postures as the condition fluctuates.

Injury or inflammation of a portion of the brain, spinal cord, or nervous system is the most common cause of abnormal posturing. The particular type of posturing can reflect the type and area of nervous system involvement.


Home Care

Most conditions associated with abnormal posturing require hospital treatment.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Abnormal posturing often accompanies reduced consciousness. Anyone exhibiting these behaviors should be examined promptly by the health care provider.

In some conditions such as prolonged coma, these behaviors can persist for an extended period of time.

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

Emergency measures may be started immediately, including placement of an artificial airway (breathing tube) and assistance with breathing. The person will likely be hospitalized in intensive care.

The medical history will be obtained from family members and a physical examination will be performed.

Medical history questions documenting abnormal posturing in detail may include:

  • When did this behavior start?
  • Is there a pattern to the occurrences?
  • Is it always the same type of posture?
  • What other symptoms preceded or accompanied the abnormal posturing?
  • Is there any significant medical history (such as a known head injury)?

The physical examination will include a complete neurological assessment.

Diagnostic testing may include:

Provided by

Review Date: 3/20/2007
Reviewed By: Daniel Kantor, M.D., Director of the Comprehensive MS Center, Neuroscience Institute, University of Florida Health Science Center, Jacksonville, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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