What is transverse myelitis?
Transverse myelitis is a neurological condition that happens when both sides of the same section of the spinal cord become inflamed. This inflammation can damage myelin, the fatty substance that covers your nerves. Loss of myelin often leads to spinal cord scarring that blocks nerve impulses and results in physical problems.
Transverse myelitis is a relatively rare disease. It occurs most often in children ages 10 to 19 and in adults ages 30 to 39, but it can happen at any age.
What causes transverse myelitis?
Experts don’t know the exact cause of transverse myelitis. The inflammation that leads to transverse myelitis can result as a side effect of a number of other conditions, including:
- Lyme disease
- Viral infections
- Bacterial infections
Some people may also get transverse myelitis as a result of spinal injuries, spinal malformations, or vascular diseases like atherosclerosis, all of which can reduce the amount of oxygen in spinal cord tissue.
If parts of the spinal cord don’t have enough oxygen, nerve cells often begin to die. The dying tissue can cause the inflammation that leads to transverse myelitis.
Transverse myelitis can also be a warning sign of multiple sclerosis, but this is a rare occurrence. Since some people with transverse myelitis have autoimmune diseases such as lupus, some doctors believe that transverse myelitis may also be an autoimmune disease. Finally, some cancers can trigger an immune response that leads to transverse myelitis.
What are the symptoms of transverse myelitis?
The physical symptoms of transverse myelitis can develop over several hours or days, or over a longer period of 1 to 2 weeks. These are possible symptoms:
- Back or neck pain
- Weakness in arms or legs
- Abnormal feelings in the legs, such as burning, tingling, or pricking
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Heightened sensitivity to touch
Where in the body these symptoms occur depends on what part of the spinal cord is inflamed. People with inflammation in the neck typically feel symptoms from the neck down, while inflammation in the middle of the spine can cause symptoms from the waist down.
How is transverse myelitis diagnosed?
If you suspect that you have transverse myelitis, your doctor will likely review your medical history and perform a complete physical exam. Because transverse myelitis can be caused by a number of treatable conditions, your doctor may want to test for some of those diseases. One diagnostic test you might need is a CT or MRI scan.
Another common test is myelography, a procedure in which a needle is used to inject a special dye into your spinal area. A technician will then use a real time X-ray called fluoroscopy to get pictures of your spinal cord.
Other tests that may be done to rule out other causes for transverse myelitis are blood tests and a lumbar puncture (also called a spinal tap).
If all potential underlying causes of transverse myelitis have been ruled out, your condition may be considered idiopathic, which means that there is no known cause for it.
How is transvers myelitis treated?
No effective cure currently exists for transverse myelitis, although many people recover from it. Treatments focus on relieving the inflammation that causes the symptoms. Some people might need to be hospitalized at first if the symptoms are severe enough. High doses of steroids are used to suppress the activity of the immune system and help speed recovery. Your doctor may also recommend pain-relieving drugs like ibuprofen or acetaminophen and plenty of bed rest. Other immune-suppressing drugs may be prescribed as well.
If steroids don’t relieve the symptoms of transverse myelitis, your doctor may try a procedure called plasma exchange, which exchanges the plasma in your blood for new plasma. This procedure removes harmful antibodies from the blood.
Depending on the type and severity of the effects of transverse myelitis, you may require physical therapy. A period of specialized in-patient care in a rehabilitation facility may be necessary.
Living with transverse myelitis
The long-term effects of transverse myelitis vary among people. About one-third of people with transverse myelitis have full or near-full recovery, with most of their symptoms gone. Another third have fair recovery, retaining some of their symptoms. The last third recover poorly and experience significant physical disabilities.
When recovery from transverse myelitis occurs, it usually begins from 2 to 12 weeks after you first experience symptoms and can take up to 2 years. Most people will only have a single episode of transverse myelitis, but a small percentage of people may have a recurrence.
Some people who get transverse myelitis are left with permanent physical disabilities, such as muscle stiffness, loss of bowel or bladder function, muscle weakness, or even paralysis. If you have any of these impairments, physical therapy will likely be a very important part of your treatment. In this treatment, specialists will work with you to maintain or increase your strength, improve your coordination, and help you gain more control over bladder and bowel functions.
Another type of therapy is occupational therapy, which helps you learn new ways of doing everyday tasks, like bathing, in spite of your new physical limitations.
Finally, some people with physical disabilities often feel sad or depressed. If this happens to you, your doctor may recommend that you see a mental health professional. Antidepressant medications and psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” are both available to help treat depression.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Some people recover fully from transverse myelitis within a few months or years, but others might continue to have long-term problems. Be sure to talk with your doctor or nurse about when you would need to call them.
Your doctor or nurse will likely advise you to call them if any symptoms you are having become worse, including weakness, numbness or other changes in sensation, or changes in bladder or bowel control.
People who have serious long-term effects from transverse myelitis, such as paralysis or loss of bladder or bowel control, can also develop a number of other complications. Your doctor or nurse might advise you to call them if you have problems such as:
- Skin sores or infections
- Trouble breathing
- Fever or other signs of infection
- Not urinating regularly or having severe constipation
- Severe muscle cramps or spasms
- Increasing pain
Key points about transverse myelitis
- Transverse myelitis is an inflammation of part of the spinal cord. The exact cause is often not known, but it sometimes happens after infections or in people with autoimmune diseases.
- Common symptoms are back or neck pain, weakness or sensation changes in the arms or legs, or loss of bladder or bowel control.
- Treatment with steroids or other drugs doesn't cure transverse myelitis, but it might relieve symptoms. Some people recover fully, while others might have minor or more serious long-term problems.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
- At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
- If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.