CRANIAL NERVE EXAMINATION
Examination of the cranial nerves allows one to "view" the brainstem all the way from its
rostral to caudal extent. The brainstem can be divided into three levels, the midbrain, the pons
and the medulla. The cranial nerves for each of these are: 2 for the midbrain (CN 3 & 4), 4 for
the pons (CN 5-8, part of 9), and 4 for the medulla (CN 9-12).
It is important to remember that cranial nerves never cross (except for one exception, the 4th
CN) and clinical findings are always on the same side as the cranial nerve involved.
Cranial nerve findings when combined with long tract findings (corticospinal and
somatosensory) are powerful for localizing lesions in the brainstem.
Cranial Nerve 1 (Olfactory Nerve)
Olfaction is the only sensory modality with direct access to cerebral cortex without going
through the thalamus. The olfactory tracts project mainly to the uncus of the temporal lobes.
Cranial Nerve 2 (Optic Nerve)
This cranial nerve has important localizing value because of its "x" axis course from the eye to
the occipital cortex. The pattern of a visual field deficit indicates whether an anatomical lesion
is pre- or postchiasmal, optic tract, optic radiation or calcarine cortex.
Cranial Nerve 3 (Oculomotor Nerve) and 4 (Trochlear Nerve)
These cranial nerves give us a view of the midbrain. The 3rd nerve in particular can give
important anatomical localization because it exits the midbrain just medial to the cerebral
peduncle. The 3rd nerve controls eye adduction (medial rectus), elevation (superior rectus),
depression (inferior rectus), elevation of the eyelid (levator palpebrae superioris), and
parasympathetics for the pupil. The 4th CN supplies the superior oblique muscle, which is
important to looking down and in (towards the midline).
Cranial nerves 5, 6, 7, and 8 are located in the pons and give us a view of this level of the
Cranial Nerve 6 (Abducens)
This cranial nerve innervates the lateral rectus for eye abduction. Remember that cranial
nerves 3, 4 and 6 must work in concert for conjugate eye movements;
if they don't then diplopia (double vision) results. The medial longitudinal fasciculus (MLF)
connects the 6th nerve nucleus to the 3rd nerve nucleus for conjugate movement.
Cranial Nerve 5 (Trigeminal Nerve)
The entry zone for this cranial nerve is at the mid pons with the motor and main sensory
(discriminatory touch) nucleus located at the same level. The axons for the descending tract
of the 5th nerve (pain and temperature) descend to the level of the upper cervical spinal cord
before they synapse with neurons of the nucleus of the descending tract of the 5th nerve.
Second order neurons then cross over and ascend to the VPM of the thalamus.
Cranial Nerve 7 (Facial Nerve)
This cranial nerve has a motor component for muscles of facial expression (and, don't forget,
the strapedius muscle which is important for the acoustic reflex), parasympathetics for tear
and salivary glands, and sensory for taste (anterior two-thirds of the tongue).
Central (upper motor neuron-UMN) versus Peripheral (lower motor neuron-LMN) 7th nerve
weakness- with a peripheral 7th nerve lesion all of the muscles ipsilateral to the affected
nerve will be weak whereas with a "central 7th ", only the muscles of the lower half of the face
contralateral to the lesion will be weak because the portion of the 7th nerve nucleus that
supplies the upper face receives bilateral corticobulbar (UMN) input.
Cranial Nerve 8 (Vestibulocochlear or Acoustic Nerve
This nerve is a sensory nerve with two divisions- acoustic and vestibular. The acoustic
division is tested by checking auditory acuity and with the Rinne and Weber tests.
The vestibular division of this nerve is important for balance. Clinically it be tested with the
oculocephalic reflex (Doll's eye maneuver) and oculovestibular reflex (ice water calorics).
Cranial nerves 9,10,11, and 12 are located in the medulla and have localizing value for
lesions in this most caudal part of the brainstem.
Cranial nerves 9 (Glossopharyngeal) and 10 (Vagus)
These two nerves are clinically lumped together. Motor wise, they innervate pharyngeal and
laryngeal muscles. Their sensory component is sensation for the pharynx and taste for the
posterior one-third of the tongue.
Cranial Nerve 11 (Spinal Accessory Nerve)
This nerve is a motor nerve for the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles. The UMN
control for the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) is an exception to the rule of the ipsilateral cerebral
hemisphere controls the movement of the contralateral side of the body. Because of the
crossing then recrossing of the corticobulbar tracts at the high cervical level, the ipsilateral
cerebral hemisphere controls the ipsilateral SCM muscle. This makes sense as far as
coordinating head movement with body movement if you think about it (remember that the
SCM turns the head to the opposite side). So if I want to work with the left side of my body I
would want to turn my head to the left so the right SCM would be activated.
Cranial Nerve 12 (Hypoglossal Nerve)
The last of the cranial nerves, CN 12 supplies motor innervation for the tongue.
EXAMINATION (Normal and Abnormal Findings)
Cranial Nerve 1- Olfaction
This CN is tested one nostril at a time by using a nonirritating smell such as tobacco, orange,
vanilla, coffee, etc. Detection of the smell is more important than the actual identification.
This patient has difficulty identifying the smells presented. Loss of smell is anosmia. The most
common cause is a cold (as in this patient) or nasal allergies. Other causes include trauma or
a meningioma affecting the olfactory tracts. Anosmia is also seen in Kallman syndrome
because of agenesis of the olfactory bulbs.
Cranial Nerve 2- Visual acuity
The first step in assessing the optic nerve is testing visual acuity. This can be done with a
standard Snellen chart or with a pocket chart (Rosenbaum). Have the patient use their
glasses if needed to obtain best-corrected vision. Have the patient hold the pocket chart at
the focal length that is best for them which is usually 14 inches. Have them recite the line with
the smallest letters that they can read and record the acuity.
The patient's visual acuity is being tested with a Rosenbaum chart. First the left eye is tested,
then the right eye. He is tested with his glasses on so this represents corrected visual acuity.
He has 20/70 vision in the left eye and 20/40 in the right. His decreased visual acuity is from
optic nerve damage.
Cranial Nerve II- Visual fields
There are several different screening tests that can be used to assess visual fields at the
bedside. First hold up both hands superiorly and inferiorly and ask the patient if they can see
both hands and do they look symmetric. Then test each eye individually using your fingers in
the four quadrants of the visual field and ask the patient to count fingers held up or point to
the hand when a finger wiggles using yourself as a control. A second screening test is to use
a grid card. Have the patient focus on the dot in the center of the grid then ask if any part of
the grid is missing or looks different. A third method is to use a cotton tip applicator. Testing
one eye at a time ask the patient to say "now" as soon as they see the applicator come into
their side vision as they focus on the examiner's nose. All of these tests are screening tests.
Formal perimetry is the most accurate way of assessing visual fields.
The patient's visual fields are being tested with gross confrontation. A right sided visual field
deficit for both eyes is shown. This is a right hemianopia from a lesion behind the optic
chiasm involving the left optic tract, radiation or striate cortex.
Cranial Nerve II- Fundoscopy
Direct visualization of the optic nerve head is an important and valuable part of assessing CN
2. Systematically look at the optic disc, vessels, retinal background and fovea.
The findings of papilledema in fundus include:
1. Loss of venous pulsations
2. Swelling of the optic nerve head so there is loss of the disc margin
3. Disc hyperemia
4. Flame shaped hemorrhages.
Cranial Nerves 2 & 3- Pupillary Light Reflex
The afferent or sensory limb of the pupillary light reflex is CN2 while the efferent or motor limb
is the parasympathetics of CN3. Shine a flashlight into each eye noting the direct as well as
the consensual constriction of the pupils. The swinging flashlight test is used to test for a
relative afferent pupillary defect or a Marcus Gunn pupil. Swinging the flashlight back and
forth between the two eyes identifies if one pupil has less light perception than the other.
Shine the flashlight at one eye noting the size of both pupils. Then swing the flashlight to the
other eye. If both pupils now dilate then that eye has perceived less light stimulus (a defect in
the sensory or afferent pathway) than the opposite eye.
The swinging flashlight test is used to show a relative afferent pupillary defect or a Marcus
Gunn pupil of the left eye. The left eye has perceived less light stimulus (a defect in the
sensory or afferent pathway) then the opposite eye so the pupil dilates with the same light
stimulus that caused constriction when the normal eye was stimulated.
Cranial Nerves 3, 4 & 6- Inspection and Ocular Alignment
Before checking ocular movements it is important to inspect the eyes. Look for ptosis. Note
the appearance of the eyes and check for ocular alignment (the reflection of your light source
should fall on the same location of each eyeball).
This patient with ocular myasthenia gravis has bilateral ptosis, left greater than right. There is
also ocular misalignment because of weakness of the eye muscles especially of the left eye.
Note the reflection of the light source doesn't fall on the same location of each eyebal.
Cranial Nerves 3, 4 & 6- Versions
Testing extraocular range of motion with both eyes open and following the target (conjugate
gaze) is called versions. The patient is asked to follow a target through the six principle
positions of gaze. Note any misalignment of the eyes or complaint of diplopia (double vision).
The first patient shown has incomplete abduction of her left eye from a 6th nerve palsy.
The second patient has a left 3rd nerve palsy resulting in ptosis, dilated pupil, limited
adduction, elevation, and depression of the left eye.
Cranial Nerves 3, 4 & 6- Ductions
If there is any misalignment of the eyes or diplopia on versions it is important to then examine
each eye with the other covered (this is called ductions). The patient should follow an object
through the six principle positions of gaze so each extraocular muscle's function is tested.
Each eye is examined with the other covered (this is called ductions). The patient is unable to
adduct either the left or the right eye. If you watch closely you can see nystagmus upon
abduction of each eye. When both eyes are tested together (testing versions) you can see the
bilateral adduction defect with nystagmus of the abducting eye. This is bilateral internuclear
ophthalmoplegia often caused by a demyelinating lesion effecting the MLF bilaterally. The
adduction defect occurs because there is disruption of the MLF (internuclear) connections
between the abducens nucleus and the lower motor neurons in the oculomotor nucleus that
innervate the medial rectus muscle.
Cranial Nerve 5- Sensory
Test for both light touch (cotton tip applicator) and pain (sharp object) in the 3 sensory
divisions (forehead, cheek, and jaw) of CN 5.
There is a sensory deficit for both light touch and pain on the left side of the face for all
divisions of the 5th nerve. Note that the deficit is first recognized just to the left of the midline
and not exactly at the midline. Patients with psychogenic sensory loss often identify the
sensory change as beginning right at the midline.
Cranial Nerves 5 & 7 - Corneal reflex
The ophthalmic division (V1) of the 5th nerve is the sensory or afferent limb and a branch of
the 7th nerve to the orbicularis oculi muscle is the motor or efferent limb of the corneal reflex.
The limbal junction of the cornea is lightly touched with a strand of cotton. The patient is
asked if they feel the touch as well as the examiner observing the reflex blink.
A patient with an absent corneal reflex either has a CN 5 sensory deficit or a CN 7 motor
deficit. The corneal reflex is particularly helpful in assessing brainstem function in the
unconscious patient. An absent corneal reflex in this setting would indicate brainstem
Cranial Nerve 5- Motor
The motor division of CN 5 supplies the muscles of mastication (temporalis, masseters, and
pterygoids). Palpate the temporalis and masseter muscles as the patient bites down hard.
Then have the patient open their mouth and resist the examiner's attempt to close the mouth.
If there is weakness of the pterygoids the jaw will deviate towards the side of the weakness.
The last test for this nerve is testing for a jaw jerk, which is a stretch reflex. Have the patient
slightly open their mouth then place your finger on their chin and strike your finger with a
reflex hammer. Normally there is no movement. If there is a jaw jerk it is said to be positive
and this indicates an upper motor neuron lesion.
The first patient shown has weakness of the pterygoids and the jaw deviates towards the side
of the weakness.
The second patient shown has a positive jaw jerk which indicates an upper motor lesion
affecting the 5th cranial nerve.
Cranial Nerve 7- Motor
The motor division of CN 7 supplies the muscles of facial expression. Start from the top and
work down. Have the patient wrinkle forehead (frontalis muscle), close eyes tight (orbicularis
oculi) show their teeth (buccinator), and purse lips or blow a kiss (orbicularis oris). If there is
weakness especially in a bilateral upper motor neuron distribution, get the patient to smile by
telling a joke or funny story. With a pseudobulbar palsy automatic or emotional facial
expression will be more complete than movements to command.
The first patient has weakness of all the muscles of facial expression on the right side of the
face indicating a lesion of the facial nucleus or the peripheral 7th nerve.
The second patient has weakness of the lower half of his left face including the orbicularis
oculi muscle but sparing the forehead. This is consistent with a central 7th or upper motor
Cranial Nerve 7- Sensory, Taste
Taste is the sensory modality tested for the sensory division of CN 7. The examiner can use a
cotton tip applicator dipped in a solution that is sweet, salty, sour, or bitter. Apply to one side
then the other side of the extended tongue and have the patient decide on the taste before
they pull their tongue back in to tell you their answer.
The patient has difficulty correctly identifying taste on the right side of the tongue
indicating a lesion of the sensory limb of the 7th nerve.
Cranial Nerve 8- Auditory Acuity, Weber & Rinne Tests
The cochlear division of CN 8 is tested by screening for auditory acuity. This can be done by
the examiner lightly rubbing their fingers by each ear or by using a ticking watch. Compare
right versus left. Further screening for conduction versus neurosensory hearing loss can be
accomplished by using the Weber and Rinne tests. The Weber test consists of placing a
vibrating tuning fork on the middle of the head and asking if the patient feels or hears it best
on one side or the other. The normal patient will say it is the same in both ears. The patient
with unilateral neurosensory hearing loss will hear it best in the normal ear while the patient
with a unilateral conductive hearing loss will hear it best in the abnormal ear. The Rinne test
consists of comparing bone conduction (placing the tuning fork on the mastoid process)
versus air conduction (placing the tuning fork in front of the pinna). Normally, air conduction is
greater than bone conduction. For neurosensory hearing loss air conduction is still greater
than bone conduction but for conduction hearing loss bone conduction will be greater than air
This patient has decreased hearing acuity of the right ear. The Weber test lateralizes to the
right ear and bone conduction is greater than air conduction on the right. He has a conductive
Cranial Nerve 8- Vestibular
The vestibular division of CN 8 can be tested for by using the vestibulo-ocular reflex as
already demonstrated or by using ice water calorics to test vestibular function. The later test
is usually reserved for patients who have vertigo or balance problems or in the comatose
patient when one is testing brainstem function.
Patients with vestibular disease typically complain of vertigo – the illusion of a spinning
movement. Nystagmus is the principle finding in vestibular disease. It is horizontal and
torsional with the slow phase of the nystagmus toward the abnormal side in peripheral
vestibular nerve disease. Visual fixation can suppress the nystagmus. In central causes of
vertigo (located in the brainstem) the nystagmus can be horizontal, upbeat, downbeat, or
torsional and is not suppressed by visual fixation.
Cranial Nerves 9 & 10- Motor
The motor division of CN 9 & 10 is tested by having the patient say "ah" or "kah". The palate
should rise symmetrically and there should be little nasal air escape. With unilateral
weakness the uvula will deviate toward the normal side because that side of the palate is
pulled up higher. With bilateral weakness neither side of the palate will elevate and there will
be marked nasal air escape.
When the patient says "ah" there is excessive nasal air escape. The palate elevates more on
the left side and the uvula deviates toward the left side because the right side is weak. This
patient has a deficit of the right 9th & 10th cranial nerves.
Cranial Nerves 9 & 10- Sensory and Motor: Gag Reflex
The gag reflex tests both the sensory and motor components of CN 9 & 10. This involuntary
reflex is obtained by touching the back of the pharynx with the tongue depressor and
watching the elevation of the palate.
Using a tongue blade, the left side of the patient's palate is touched which results in a gag
reflex with the left side of the palate elevating more then the right and the uvula deviating to
the left consistent with a right CN 9 & 10 deficit.
Cranial Nerve 11- Motor
CN 11 is tested by asking the patient to shrug their shoulders (trapezius muscles) and turn
their head (sternocleidomastoid muscles) against resistance.
When the patient contracts the muscles of the neck the left sternocleidomastoid muscle is
easily seen but the right is absent. Looking at the back of the patient, the left trapezius muscle
is outlined and present but the right is atrophic and hard to identify. These findings indicate a
lesion of the right 11th cranial nerve.
Cranial Nerve 12- Motor
The 12th CN is tested by having the patient stick out their tongue and move it side to side.
Further strength testing can be done by having the patient push the tongue against a tongue
blade. Inspect the tongue for atrophy and fasciculations. If there is unilateral weakness, the
protruded tongue will deviate towards the weak side. By having the patient say lah-pah-kah,
the examiner is testing the motor components of CN 12, 7, and 9&10.
Notice the atrophy and fasciculation of the right side of this patient's tongue. The tongue
deviates to the right as well because of weakness of the right intrinsic tongue muscles. These
findings are present because of a lesion of the right 12th cranial nerve.
1. UNIVERSITY OF UTAH SCHOOL OF MEDICINE
2. Seidel, H & Hall, J et.al. Comprehensive Guide to Mosby's PHYSICAL EXAMINATION
Edition SINGAPORE: Elsevier