Transverse myelitis (TM) is an uncommon neurological syndrome caused by inflammation (a protective response which includes swelling, pain, heat, and redness) of the spinal cord, characterized by weakness, back pain, and bowel and bladder problems. It affects one to five persons per million.
TM affects the entire thickness of the spinal cord, producing both sensory and movement problems. It is believed to be linked to the immune system, which may be prompted to attack the body's own spinal cord. Striking rapidly without warning, its effects can be devastating.
Causes & symptoms
Transverse myelitis has many different causes, often triggered by a variety of viral and bacterial infections (especially those associated with a rash such as measles or chickenpox). Once the infection subsides, the inflammation in the cord begins. About a third of patients experience a flu-like illness with fever about the time they develop symptoms of TM. Sometimes, there appears to be a direct invasion of, and injury to, the spinal cord by an infectious agent (such as herpes zoster or the AIDS virus).
TM can also accompany a variety of diseases that break down tissue that surrounds and insulates the nerves (demyelinating diseases), such as multiple sclerosis (MS).
Some toxic substances, such as carbon monoxide, lead, or arsenic, can cause a type of myelitis characterized by inflammation followed by hemorrhage or bleeding that destroys the entire circumference of the spinal cord. Other types of myelitis can be caused by poliovirus; herpes zoster; rabies, smallpox or polio vaccination; or parasitic and fungal infections.
Many experts believe that TM can occur without any apparent cause, probably as the result of an autoimmune process. This means that a person's immune system attacks the spinal cord, causing inflammation and tissue damage.
Regardless of the cause of the myelitis, onset of symptoms is sudden and rapid. Problems with movement and sensation appear within one or two days after inflammation begins. Symptoms include soft (flaccid) paralysis of the legs, with pain in the lower legs or back, followed by loss of feeling and sphincter (muscles which close an opening, as in the anus) control. The earliest symptom may be a girdle-like sensation around the trunk.
The extent of damage occuring will depend on how much of the spinal cord is affected, but TM rarely involves the arms. Severe spinal cord damage also can lead to shock.
A doctor will suspect transverse myelitis in any patient with a rapid onset of paralysis. Medical history, physical examination, brain and spinal cord scans, myelogram, spinal tap, and blood tests are used to rule out other neurological causes of symptoms, such as a tumor. If none of these tests suggest a cause for the symptoms, the patient is presumed to have transverse myelitis.
There is no effective treatment for transverse myelitis, but any underlying infection must be treated. After this, the focus of care shifts from diagnosis and treatment to learning how to live with the effects of the syndrome. Patients are helped to cope psychologically with new limitations, and are given physical rehabilitation.
Physical adaptations include learning to cope with bowel and bladder control, sexuality, inability to control muscles (spasticity), mobility, pain, and activities of daily living (such as dressing).
As nerve impulses from the spinal cord are often scrambled and misinterpreted by the brain as pain, painkillers are given to ease discomfort. Antidepressants or anticonvulsants may also help.
The prognosis depends on how much of the cord was damaged. Some people recover completely, while others have lasting problems and need help in learning how to cope with activities of daily living. People who develop spastic reflexes early in the course of the condition are more likely to recover than those who do not. If spinal cord tissue death (necrosis) occurs, the chance of a complete recovery is poor. Most recovery occurs within the first three months. A certain percentage of patients with TM will go on to develop multiple sclerosis.
- Demyelinating disorders
- A group of diseases characterized by the breakdown of myelin, the fatty sheath surrounding and insulating nerve fibers. This breakdown interferes with nerve function, and can result in paralysis. Multiple sclerosis is a demyelinating disorder.
- An x-ray examination of the brain and spinal cord with the aid of a contrast dye, to look for tumors or spinal cord injury.
For Your Information
- Stone, L.A. "Transverse Myelitis." In Neuroimmunology for the Clinician, edited by L.A. Rolak and Y. Harati. New York: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1997.
- Scott, T.F., et.al. "Transverse Myelitis: Comparison with Spinal Cord Presentations of Multiple Sclerosis." Neurology, 50 (2)(February 1998): 429-433.
- Transverse Myelitis Association. 3548 Tahoma Pl. W., Tacoma, WA 98466. (253) 565-8156.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Gale Research, 1999.