Horner syndrome is a condition that affects the face and eye on one side of the body. It is caused by the disruption of a nerve pathway from the brain to the head and neck.
Typically, signs and symptoms of Horner syndrome include decreased pupil size, a drooping eyelid and decreased sweating on the affected side of the face.
Horner syndrome may be the result of another medical problem, such as a stroke, tumor or spinal cord injury. In some cases, no underlying cause can be found. There's no specific treatment for Horner syndrome, but treatment for the underlying cause may restore nerve function.
Horner syndrome is also known as Bernard-Horner syndrome or oculosympathetic palsy.
Horner syndrome usually affects only one side of the face. Common signs and symptoms include:
- A persistently small pupil (miosis)
- A notable difference in pupil size between the two eyes (anisocoria)
- Little or delayed opening (dilation) of the affected pupil in dim light
- Drooping of the upper eyelid (ptosis)
- Slight elevation of the lower lid, sometimes called upside-down ptosis
- Sunken appearance of the affected eye
- Little or no sweating (anhidrosis) on the affected side of the face
Signs and symptoms, particularly ptosis and anhidrosis, may be subtle and difficult to detect.
Additional signs and symptoms in children with Horner syndrome may include:
- Lighter iris color in the affected eye of a child under the age of 1
- Change in color on the affected side of the face that would typically appear from heat, physical exertion or emotional reactions
When to see a doctor
A number of factors, some more serious than others, can cause Horner syndrome. It is important to get a prompt and accurate diagnosis.
Get emergency care if signs or symptoms associated with Horner syndrome appear suddenly, appear after a traumatic injury, or are accompanied by other signs or symptoms, such as:
- Impaired vision
- Slurred speech
- Difficulty walking
- Muscle weakness or lack of muscle control
- Severe, sudden headache or neck pain
Horner syndrome is caused by damage to a certain pathway in the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system regulates heart rate, pupil size, perspiration, blood pressure and other functions that enable you to respond quickly to changes in your environment.
The nerve pathway affected by Horner syndrome is divided into three groups of nerve cells (neurons).
This neuron pathway leads from the hypothalamus at the base of the brain, passes through the brainstem and extends into the upper portion of the spinal cord. Problems in this region that can disrupt nerve function related to Horner syndrome include:
- Diseases that cause the loss of the protective sheath on neurons (myelin)
- Neck trauma
- Cyst in the spinal column (syringomyelia)
This neuron path extends from the spinal column, across the upper part of the chest and into the side of the neck. Causes related to nerve damage in this region may include:
- Lung cancer
- Tumor of the myelin sheath (schwannoma)
- Damage to the main blood vessel leading from the heart (aorta)
- Surgery in the chest cavity
- Traumatic injury
This neuron path extends along the side of the neck and leads to facial skin and muscles of the iris and eyelids. Nerve damage in this region may be associated with the following:
- Damage to the carotid artery along the side of the neck
- Damage to the jugular vein along the side of the neck
- Tumor or infection near the base of the skull
- Cluster headaches, a disorder that results in cyclical patterns of severe headaches
The most common causes of Horner syndrome in children include:
- Injury to the neck or shoulders during delivery
- Defect of the aorta present at birth
- Tumor of the hormonal and nervous systems (neuroblastoma)
In some cases, the cause of Horner syndrome cannot be identified. This is known as idiopathic Horner syndrome.