What is neuromyelitis optica?

Neuromyelitis optica, also called NMO or Devic's disease, is a rare yet severe demyelinating autoimmune inflammatory process affecting the central nervous system. It specifically affects the myelin, which is the insulation around the nerves. NMO mainly affects the spinal cord and the optic nerves -- the nerves that carry signals from the eyes to the brain. As a result, the disease can cause paralysis and blindness.

Neuromyelitis optica most often strikes during childhood. It can also affect adults are in their 40s. It’s especially common in young women, but men can develop it, too. Experts used to think that NMO was a type of multiple sclerosis. They now think it may be a different condition. The conditions do have some similar symptoms, but these are usually more severe in NMO. Vision problems with multiple sclerosis usually affect one eye at a time, while NMO may affect both eyes at the same time.

What causes neuromyelitis optica?

With NMO, your immune system attacks a substance in your body called myelin — the insulation around your nerves. Specifically, the myelin cells in the spinal cord and optic nerves are attacked. Usually, people with NMO have flare-ups of the disease that may strike months or years apart. Between these flare-ups, people may have some recovery.

What are the symptoms of neuromyelitis optica?

These are possible symptoms of NMO:

  • Pain in the eyes
  • Loss of vision
  • Weakness or numbness in the arms and legs
  • Paralysis of the arms and legs
  • Difficulty controlling the bladder or bowels
  • Uncontrollable vomiting and hiccups 

How is neuromyelitis optica diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider may do a variety of tests if he or she suspects NMO including:

  • MRI scan of your brain and spinal cord
  • Tests to check on how well your optic nerves are working
  • Samples of your blood and spinal fluid to check for signs of the disease

How is neuromyelitis optica treated?

Experts don't consider this condition curable. But your healthcare provider can prescribe medicines or other treatments to reduce the effects of the disease and relieve symptoms. For treatment options, visit The Multiple Sclerosis (MS) & Demyelinating Diseases Center at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 314.454.5437 or 800.678.5437 or email us.