Abnormal posturing refers to rigid body movements and chronic abnormal positions of the body. This symptom is not the same as showing poor posture or slumping over. Rather, it’s a tendency to hold a particular body position or to move one or more parts of the body in an abnormal way. Many abnormal posturing behaviors are the result of a serious spinal cord or brain injury.

When a muscle contracts, the muscles on the other side of the joint normally offer some resistance to the contraction. In abnormal posturing, however, the muscle groups fail to offer resistance when a muscle contracts. This results in atypical movement of the head or back, or stiff or arched feet.

There are three main types of postures that may be seen among individuals with abnormal posturing:

  • Opisthotonos is a posture in which the neck is tilted back and the back is stiff and arched.
  • Decorticate posture is characterized by a stiff body, straight legs, and clenched fists.
  • Decerebrate posture is characterized by rigid limbs, pointed toes, and a backward tilt to the head and neck.

Depending on the cause of abnormal posturing, people may alternate between different postures with stimulation or over the course of the condition.

Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if you notice abnormal posturing. This symptom often indicates a very serious medical condition that needs immediate treatment. Some people with this symptom may be unconscious, and you should seek help on their behalf.

Abnormal posturing most often results from damage to the brain or spinal cord. The type of posturing you experience will depend on the specific area of the brain or spinal cord that was affected.

Damage to the central nervous system may occur due to:

  • fluid buildup in the skull
  • swelling of the brain
  • a direct blow to the head
  • a blood clot or stroke
  • a brain tumor
  • high blood pressure in the brain as a result of malaria
  • meningitis, which is an inflammatory condition caused by a virus or bacterial infection
  • Reye’s syndrome, which is a serious condition that causes sudden swelling in the liver and brain, particularly in children

There are numerous possible causes of abnormal posturing. Many of these underlying causes are very serious. It’s critical to call 911 or to go to the nearest emergency room right away if you or someone you know is displaying abnormal posturing. Failure to seek medical treatment could result in permanent brain damage and life-threatening complications.

Abnormal posturing can’t be treated at home. A doctor in a hospital setting must treat this condition. Treatment for abnormal posturing is usually immediate and considered an emergency.

The first step of emergency treatment typically involves inserting a breathing tube into the throat to assist with breathing. Muscles spasms, brain trauma, and other causes of abnormal posturing may restrict breathing. Once your condition is stabilized, the doctor can determine the underlying cause of posturing.

To find the underlying cause, the doctor will ask you questions about your medical history. They’ll also ask you about the duration of your symptoms, type of posture, and any recent injuries or trauma.

Once your doctor takes your medical history, they’ll likely conduct a complete physical examination. Determining the exact cause of abnormal posturing can take time and numerous tests. Common tests include:

  • an electroencephalogram, which allows your doctor to measure the electrical activity in your brain and identify potential problems associated with this activity
  • a cerebral angiography, which involves the use of a contrast dye to determine how blood is flowing through your brain
  • imaging tests, such as X-rays and CT scans, which produce detailed images of the brain to show swelling and inflammation inside of the brain
  • intracranial pressure monitoring, which allows your doctor to assess the amount of pressure inside of your skull

You’ll need to stay in the intensive care unit until the cause of abnormal posturing is determined and stabilized.

Abnormal posturing is a symptom of an injury, disease, or illness. Ignoring symptoms may cause the underlying condition to get worse. Prevention lies in getting timely treatment.

Other preventive measures include:

  • wearing a helmet or head gear when participating in risky sports or behaviors
  • never giving children aspirin without their doctor’s approval
  • taking a medication to prevent malaria if you’re traveling to regions where the disease is prevalent, such as Africa or South America

You should also take steps to prevent blood clots from forming and potentially causing a stroke. These steps include:

  • controlling blood pressure
  • controlling blood sugar levels
  • controlling cholesterol levels
  • quitting smoking if you smoke
  • exercising at least three times per week

Talk to your doctor about additional ways you can lower your risk for abnormal posturing.