Skip Navigation LinksHome > September 2011 - Volume 31 - Issue 3 > Early Diagnosis of Horner Syndrome Using Topical Apraclonidi...
Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology:
doi: 10.1097/WNO.0b013e31821a91fe
Original Contribution

Early Diagnosis of Horner Syndrome Using Topical Apraclonidine

Cooper-Knock, Johnathan MRCP; Pepper, Irene FRCOphth; Hodgson, Timothy FRCR; Sharrack, Basil MD, PhD, FRCP

Free Access
Japanese Abstract
Article Outline
Collapse Box

Author Information

Department of Neurology, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, United Kingdom.

The authors report no conflicts of interest.

Address correspondence to Johnathan Cooper-Knock, MRCP, Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience, 385a Glossop Road, Sheffield S10 2HQ, United Kingdom; E-mail:

Collapse Box


The diagnosis of Horner syndrome (HS) using apraclonidine eye drops is an alternative to the use of topical cocaine drops. A number of reports have described the efficacy of apraclonidine testing, but there is some debate over its sensitivity in the acute setting. We describe a patient with HS secondary to carotid dissection who had a positive response to apraclonidine 3 hours after the onset of symptoms. The case is made for a larger study of apraclonidine use to determine its true sensitivity and specificity, identify confounding factors, and redefine the criteria for positive testing.

Horner syndrome (HS) is classically described as the triad of miosis, upper lid ptosis with mild elevation of the lower lid and, depending on the site of the lesion, anhidrosis of the ipsilateral side of the face and/or body. HS occurs as a result of disruption to the ipsilateral sympathetic innervation to the eye and face (1). Interruption of the ipsilateral sympathetic innervation distal to the superior cervical ganglion produces oculosympathetic palsy without the anhidrosis due to divergence of the sympathetic supply to the eye and face at the ganglion (2).

Depending on the cause of HS, early recognition and intervention can be lifesaving. However, the combination of physiologic anisocoria and involutional ptosis, particularly in the elderly, is not uncommon, and confirmation of the diagnosis of HS is desirable. This is made by pharmacological eyedrop testing, traditionally with cocaine but increasingly with apraclonidine. Cocaine is an indirect sympathomimetic agent, which works by blocking the reuptake of noradrenaline from the synaptic space (3). In the normal eye, this should produce an increase in pupil diameter, while in HS, the pupil will fail to dilate. However, testing with cocaine has limitations. First, the normal control pupil (contralateral eye) may not dilate due to the relatively weak dilating effect of cocaine (4). Second, there is the risk of a false-positive result if the affected pupil is incapable of dilating for another reason (2). Third, cocaine is a controlled substance, which is often difficult to obtain.

Apraclonidine is an adrenergic drug with a weak agonist action on α-1 receptors and a strong agonist action on α-2 receptors (5). In HS, there is an upregulation of α-1 receptors in response to the loss of sympathetic innervation, which results in a supersensitivity of the affected pupil such that it dilates in response to apraclonidine (6). In contrast, a normal pupil will either show no change in size or constrict because of α-2 activity (6). The current criterion for the diagnosis of HS is a reversal of the anisocoria after bilateral administration of topical apraclonidine (4).

There are a number of unsettled issues regarding the use of apraclonidine in establishing the diagnosis of HS. It has previously been reported that testing with apraclonidine has a similar sensitivity to cocaine, except in the acute setting before the disruption of the sympathetic supply has produced denervation supersensitivity (4). Another confounding factor in the pharmacological diagnosis of HS is the response of a pupil with incomplete disruption to its sympathetic supply. Any blockade of sympathetic firing will result in supersensitivity and thus a positive response to apraclonidine testing (7). However, it is not known for certain whether and to what degree the response to apraclonidine is attenuated with partial lesions. Similarly, an incomplete lesion may produce partial dilation in testing with cocaine as some but not all of the sympathetic nerve fibers are lost, which may lead to a response that is difficult to interpret (8). Finally, it should be noted that apraclonidine testing is relatively contraindicated in infants younger than 6 months as it may result in lethargy, bradycardia, and respiratory depression due to immaturity of the blood-brain barrier (9).

Back to Top | Article Outline


Following a road traffic accident 4 days previously, a healthy 43-year-old man presented to the ophthalmology department with a 3-hour history of blurred vision in his right eye associated with neck pain. On examination, he was found to have miosis of the right pupil with no evidence of anhidrosis or ptosis and no other neurological signs. A clinical diagnosis of HS secondary to a suspected traumatic internal carotid artery dissection was made.

1% apraclonidine drops were administered and elicited a positive response: the affected pupil dilated, confirming the diagnosis of HS (Fig. 1). MRI and MRA demonstrated a right internal artery dissection within the carotid canal distal to the carotid bifurcation (Fig. 2).

Fig. 1
Fig. 1
Image Tools
Fig. 2
Fig. 2
Image Tools

The patient was entered into the Cervical Artery Dissection in Stroke Study (CADISS) of anticoagulation vs antiplatelet therapy (10) and was randomized to dual antiplatelet therapy. When seen 4 months later, he was noted to still have mild pupil asymmetry. Follow-up imaging revealed that his internal carotid artery had returned to a normal caliber.

Back to Top | Article Outline


A number of case series have reported the utility of apraclonidine in the diagnosis of HS (4,11-15). With the exception of one of the cases reported by Brown et al (13), all these series reported a 100% sensitivity of apraclonidine in diagnosis of HS caused by a variety of pathological processes affecting the sympathetic pathway at different sites. A positive test was defined as reversal of anisocoria. The case of Brown et al (13) showed a partial response, that is, relative dilation of the affected pupil but not reversal of anisocoria.

In all the above series, the timing of testing after the onset of symptoms was greater than 1 month. The utility of apraclonidine in the acute setting is debated as, unlike cocaine, a positive test depends on the development of sympathetic supersensitivity at the end organ (4). What is not currently known is the exact time interval required for the development of sufficient supersensitivity to produce a positive apraclonidine test and whether this is different in various causes of HS. Bohnsack and Parker (16) reported a positive apraclonidine test 2 weeks after a carotid artery dissection. Garibaldi et al (17) documented 2 cases of positive apraclonidine tests 1 week and 10 days after the onset of sinusitis and internal carotid artery dissection, respectively. Lebas et al (18) described a positive apraclonidine test 36 hours after a dorsolateral medullary brainstem infarction. However, others have reported false-negative apraclonidine testing in cases of HS confirmed with a positive cocaine test. Dewan et al (19) observed a false-negative apraclonidine test in a patient with HS 4, 9, and 16 days after internal carotid artery dissection. Falzon et al (20) reported denervation supersensitivity in response to 1% phenylephrine in 2 patients with HS resulting from internal carotid artery dissection at 10 days but not 3 days after injury (20).

We observed a response to apraclonidine relatively soon after the onset of a HS due to traumatic internal carotid artery dissection. The exact time of onset of the disruption to the sympathetic innervation is not clear. The onset of ocular symptoms 3 hours prior to presentation is suggestive, but the lesion may have occurred at any time prior to the road traffic accident 4 days previously. In our patient, there was a decrease in anisocoria with apraclonidine indicating sympathetic supersensitivity, but reversal of the anisocoria did not occur.

This has been the case with a number of the reported false-negative responses to apraclonidine including the Brown et al report mentioned previously (13). Kawasaki et al (21) described a case of HS of unknown cause with a false-negative apraclonidine test at 6 months and a case of HS secondary to carotid dissection with a false-negative apraclonidine test at 3 years, but in both cases, the affected pupil did show a partial response. It is apparent that the development of sympathetic supersensitivity sufficient to elicit a response to apraclonidine testing is present relatively soon after the development of HS. Yet, current diagnostic criterion of reversal of anisocoria may preclude recognition of that response. It has been suggested that these partial responses, including our case, may represent incomplete lesions of the sympathetic supply sufficient to produce sympathetic supersensitivity and pupillary dilation but not reversal of anisocoria (7). The absence of observable ptosis in HS, as in our case, has been described (22) and is also consistent with incomplete interruption of sympathetic innervations.

While the usefulness of apraclonidine in acute and chronic HS has been clearly demonstrated, a larger study would provide more data on the utility of this test. Such a study might lead to modifying criteria for a positive test and allow pharmacological diagnosis of HS due to both complete and incomplete disruption of the oculosympathetic pathway.

Back to Top | Article Outline


1. Walton KA, Buono LM. Horner syndrome. Curr Opin Ophthalmol. 2003;14:357-363.

2. Martin TJ. Horner's syndrome, pseudo-Horner's syndrome, and simple anisocoria. Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 2007;7:397-406.

3. Ritz MC, Cone EJ, Kuhar MJ. Cocaine inhibition of ligand binding at dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin transporters: a structure-activity study. Life Sci. 1990;46:635-645.

4. Freedman KA, Brown SM. Topical apraclonidine in the diagnosis of suspected Horner syndrome. J Neuroophthalmol. 2005;25:83-85.

5. Abrams DA, Robin AL, Pollack IP, de Faller JM, DeSantis L. The safety and efficacy of topical 1% ALO (p-aminoclonidine hydrochloride) in normal volunteers. Arch Ophthalmol. 1987;105:1205-1207.

6. Moodley AA, Spooner RB. Apraclonidine in the diagnosis of Horner's syndrome. S Afr Med J. 2007;97:506-507.

7. Kardon R. Are we ready to replace cocaine with apraclonidine in the pharmacologic diagnosis of Horner syndrome? J Neuroophthalmol. 2005;25:69-70.

8. Smit DP. Pharmacological testing in Horner's syndrome—a new paradigm. S Afr Med J. 2010;100:738-740.

9. Watts P, Satterfield D, Lim MK. Adverse effects of apraclonidine used in the diagnosis of Horner syndrome in infants. J AAPOS. 2007;11:282-283.

10. Norris JW, Markus HS. Cervical Artery Dissection in Stroke Study (CADISS). St London, United Kingdom: George's University of London, 2009:1-2; 2006-00287-18.

11. Morales J, Brown SM, Abdul-Rahim AS, Crosson CE. Ocular effects of apraclonidine in Horner syndrome. Arch Ophthalmol. 2000;118:951-954.

12. Bacal DA, Levy SR. The use of apraclonidine in the diagnosis of Horner syndrome in pediatric patients. Arch Ophthalmol. 2004;122:276-279.

13. Brown SM, Aouchiche R, Freedman KA. The utility of 0.5% apraclonidine in the diagnosis of Horner syndrome. Arch Ophthalmol. 2003;121:1201-1203.

14. Koc F, Kavuncu S, Kansu T, Acaroglu G, Firat E. The sensitivity and specificity of 0.5% apraclonidine in the diagnosis of oculosympathetic paresis. Br J Ophthalmol. 2005;89:1442-1444.

15. Chen PL, Hsiao CH, Chen JT, Lu DW, Chen WY. Efficacy of apraclonidine 0.5% in the diagnosis of Horner syndrome in pediatric patients under low or high illumination. Am J Ophthalmol. 2006;142:469-472.

16. Bohnsack BL, Parker JW. Positive apraclonidine test within two weeks of onset of Horner syndrome caused by carotid artery dissection. J Neuroophthalmol. 2008;28:235-236.

17. Garibaldi DC, Hindman HB, Grant MP, Lliff NT, Merbs SL. Effect of 0.5% apraclonidine on ptosis in Horner syndrome. Ophthal Plast Reconstr Surg. 2006;22:53-55.

18. Lebas M, Seror J, Debroucker T. Positive apraclonidine test 36 hours after acute onset of Horner syndrome in dorsolateral pontomedullary stroke. J Neuroophthalmol. 2010;30:12-17.

19. Dewan MA, Harrison AR, Lee MS. False-negative apraclonidine testing in acute Horner syndrome. Can J Ophthalmol. 2009;44:109-110.

20. Falzon K, Jungkim S, Charalampidou S, Townley D, Flitcroft DI. Denervation supersensitivity to 1% phenylephrine in Horner syndrome can be demonstrated 10 days after the onset of symptoms. Br J Ophthalmol. 2009;93:130.

21. Kawasaki A, Borruat FX. False negative apraclonidine test in two patients with Horner syndrome. Klin Monatsbl Augenheilkd. 2008;225:520-522.

22. Pollard ZF, Greenberg MF, Bordenca M, Lange J. Atypical acquired pediatric Horner syndrome. Arch Ophthalmol. 2010;128:937-940.

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.