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
  • Syphilis
  • Measles
  • Viral infections
  • Bacterial infections

Some people may also get transverse myelitis as a result of spinal injuries, spinal defects, 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 start to die. The dying tissue can cause the inflammation that leads to transverse myelitis.

What are the symptoms of transverse myelitis?

The 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?

Your healthcare provider will likely review your medical history and do a complete physical exam. Because transverse myelitis can be caused by a number of treatable conditions, your provider may want to test for some of those diseases. One 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.

If all potential underlying causes of transverse myelitis have been ruled out, it is called idiopathic.

How is transverse 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. Depending on the type and severity of the effects of transverse myelitis, physical therapy may be required. For more treatment options for transverse myelitis, visit The Multiple Sclerosis (MS) & Demyelinating Diseases Center at St. Louis Childrens Hospital.

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