What Is Locked-In Syndrome

  • Amy MurtaghPostgraduate Degree, Science Communication and Public Engagement, The University of Edinburgh, UK


Locked-in syndrome (LIS) is a rare neurological disorder that involves severe motor (muscle movement) impairment while leaving cognitive (thinking and understanding) function intact. It is characterized by complete paralysis of all voluntary muscles except for the eye muscles. This renders patients unable to speak or move any part of their body apart from their eyes. Patients with locked-in syndrome are conscious and fully aware of their surroundings, but their ability to interact with the outside world is limited. This condition presents significant challenges for both the affected patients and caregivers.1,2

Types of locked-in syndrome

There are two types of locked-in syndromes:

  1. Classic Locked-In Syndrome - patients are unable to move any part of their body, including their limbs and facial muscles, but retain eye movement and blinking as their only means of communication
  2. Incomplete Locked-In Syndrome - some limited movement remains, such as minimal facial muscle control or limited limb mobility. However, the ability to communicate effectively and engage in normal daily activities remains severely compromised

Causes of locked-in syndrome

The primary cause of locked-in syndrome is damage to the brain stem, resulting from one of several causes, including:

  • Brain stem injury - trauma, such as head injury, severe brain haemorrhage, or brain tumour, can damage the brain stem
  • Stroke - a brainstem stroke, often caused by a blood clot or a bleeding vessel
  • Neurological conditions - certain conditions like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis (MS), or pontine myelinolysis can also lead to locked-in syndrome.3,4

Signs and symptoms of locked-in syndrome

The key characteristic of locked-in syndrome is the preservation of cognitive function alongside profound loss of motor function. Specific symptoms include:

  • Paralysis - complete paralysis of voluntary muscles, except for the eye muscles, leading to limited or no movement.
  • Absent muscle reflexes - patients will be unable to perform muscle reflexes, such as swallowing, limb movement, or facial expressions.5,6

On the other hand, preserved functions in locked-in syndrome include:

  • Eye Movements - preserved vertical eye movement and blinking cause patients to need to communicate through eye movements
  • Consciousness - patients remain fully conscious and aware of their surroundings
  • Cognitive functions - including memory, thinking, and reasoning, remain intact.5,6

Management and treatment for locked-in syndrome

Locked-in syndrome presents unique challenges for patients, so comprehensive management and treatment approaches are essential to improve quality of life. Although complete recovery is rare, supportive therapy and rehabilitation techniques can enhance communication, motor recovery, and overall well-being. 

Some commonly employed strategies include:

  • Supportive therapy - creating a supportive environment and ensuring emotional support for both the patient and their caregivers is crucial. This includes providing psychological counselling, facilitating communication methods, and promoting social interaction.
  • Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) - various AAC techniques, such as eye-tracking devices, communication boards, or computer-based systems, can enable individuals with locked-in syndrome to express their thoughts and needs
  • Physical rehabilitation - physical therapy focuses on preserving muscle strength range of motion and preventing complications like tight muscles, tendons and pressure sores
  • Cognitive rehabilitation - cognitive training programs aim to enhance attention, memory, and executive functioning abilities


Doctors diagnose locked-in syndrome by evaluating a patient's clinical history, performing a physical examination, and other specialized tests. 

Some diagnostic approaches include:

  • Clinical assessment - detailed assessment is performed to evaluate the patient's history, symptoms, and physical examination findings, such as the absence of voluntary muscle movement while preserving eye movement7,8
  • Brain imaging - neuroimaging, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), is employed to identify the underlying cause of locked-in syndrome, such as brainstem lesions or abnormalities.9,10
  • Electrophysiological studies - electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies may be used to assess nerve and muscle function and exclude other neuromuscular disorders 


How can I prevent locked-in syndrome?

Locked-in syndrome is typically caused by brainstem injury or stroke. Taking preventive measures such as wearing seat belts, using protective headgear during sports, managing cardiovascular risk factors, and seeking timely medical attention for conditions that increase the risk of stroke can help reduce the likelihood of developing locked-in syndrome.

How common is locked-in syndrome?

Locked-in syndrome is considered a rare condition, with an estimated incidence of 1 to 2 cases per million population. However, it is important to note that accurate prevalence data is challenging to obtain due to underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis.

Who is at risk of locked-in syndrome?

Individuals with a history of brainstem injury, stroke, or certain neurological conditions like ALS or MS are at higher risk of developing locked-in syndrome. Additionally, anyone involved in activities with a high risk of head or spinal cord injuries, such as contact sports or motor vehicle accidents, may be at increased risk.

What can I expect if I have locked-in syndrome?

If you have locked-in syndrome, you can expect to experience complete paralysis of voluntary muscles, except for eye movement. While your cognitive function and consciousness remain intact, your ability to communicate and interact with the environment will be severely limited. Supportive therapy, communication aids, and rehabilitation techniques can help enhance communication and improve quality of life.

When should I see a doctor?

If you experience sudden or severe neurological symptoms, such as paralysis, loss of muscle control, or an inability to communicate, it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention. Prompt evaluation and diagnosis are essential to determine the underlying cause and initiate appropriate management and support for locked-in syndrome.


In summary, locked-in syndrome (LIS) is a rare neurological disorder characterized by complete paralysis of all voluntary muscles, except for the eyes, leaving cognitive function intact. There are two types: classic, with no movement except eye muscles, and incomplete, with limited movement. Causes include brain stem injury, stroke, or certain neurological conditions. Symptoms include paralysis, preserved eye movement, absent muscle reflexes, consciousness, and intact cognitive function. Management involves supportive therapy, augmentative communication methods, and physical and cognitive rehabilitation. Diagnosis includes clinical assessment, brain imaging, and electrophysiological studies. LIS presents significant challenges for patients and caregivers, requiring comprehensive approaches to enhance quality of life.


  1. Schnakers C, Perrin F, Schabus M, et al. Voluntary brain processing in disorders of consciousness. Neurology. 2008;71(20):1614-1620.
  2. Namasivayam A, Chacron M, Shevell M. Locked-in syndrome: causes and outcomes in children. Dev Med Child Neurol. 2007;49(9):673-677.
  3. Bruno MA, Ledoux D, Lambermont B, et al. Comparison of the Full Outline of UnResponsiveness (FOUR) score and the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) in predicting the outcome of locked-in syndrome. Clin Neurol Neurosurg. 2011;113(6):460-462.
  4. Fischer C, Luauté J, Némoz C, et al. Improved prognosis of bacterial brainstem infections in non-immunocompromised patients: a retrospective analysis of 20 cases. J Neurol. 2004;251(8):1028-1033.
  5. Yazici G, Nalbant L, Erbil N, Köse S. The Evaluation of Patients Diagnosed with Locked-In Syndrome due to Brainstem Lesions. Turk J Phys Med Rehabil. 2019;65(4):335-342.
  6. Pradat-Diehl P, Delargy M. Locked-in syndrome after closed head injury. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1992;55(1):63-66.
  7. Gibbons CH, Freeman R. Treatment-induced neuropathy of diabetes: an acute, iatrogenic complication of diabetes. Brain. 2015;138(Pt 1):43-52.
  8. Aulakh R, Darbey T, Cameron H. The trajectory of motor recovery and functional outcome in the locked-in syndrome: a single-case study. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2012;93(11):2043-2046.
  9. Bashir K, Sharma S, Bashir S, et al. High-Resolution Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Locked-In Syndrome. J Coll Physicians Surg Pak. 2021;31(6):744-747.
  10. Li Q, Xie J, Ma L, et al. Functional Reorganization of the Brain in Locked-In Syndrome after 8-Year Motor Imagery Training. Neural Plast. 2020;2020:6340983.
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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