What is Transverse Myelitis?
What is transverse myelitis?
Symptoms of transverse myelitis include a loss of spinal cord function over several hours to several weeks. What usually begins as a sudden onset of lower back pain, muscle weakness, or abnormal sensations in the toes and feet can rapidly progress to more severe symptoms, including paralysis, urinary retention, and loss of bowel control. Although some patients recover from transverse myelitis with minor or no residual problems, others suffer permanent impairments that affect their ability to perform ordinary tasks of daily living. Most patients will have only one episode of transverse myelitis; a small percentage may have a recurrence.
The segment of the spinal cord at which the damage occurs determines which parts of the body are affected. Nerves in the cervical (neck) region control signals to the neck, arms, hands, and muscles of breathing (the diaphragm). Nerves in the thoracic (upper back) region relay signals to the torso and some parts of the arms. Nerves at the lumbar (mid-back) level control signals to the hips and legs. Finally, sacral nerves, located within the lowest segment of the spinal cord, relay signals to the groin, toes, and some parts of the legs. Damage at one segment will affect function at that segment and segments below it. In patients with transverse myelitis, demyelination usually occurs at the thoracic level, causing problems with leg movement and bowel and bladder control, which require signals from the lower segments of the spinal cord.
Who gets transverse myelitis?
What causes transverse myelitis?
Transverse myelitis often develops following viral infections. Infectious agents suspected of causing transverse myelitis include varicella zoster (the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles), herpes simplex, cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr, influenza, echovirus, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis A, and rubella. Bacterial skin infections, middle-ear infections (otitis media), and Mycoplasma pneumoniae (bacterial pneumonia) have also been associated with the condition.
In post-infectious cases of transverse myelitis, immune system mechanisms, rather than active viral or bacterial infections, appear to play an important role in causing damage to spinal nerves. Although researchers have not yet identified the precise mechanisms of spinal cord injury in these cases, stimulation of the immune system in response to infection indicates that an autoimmune reaction may be responsible. In autoimmune diseases, the immune system, which normally protects the body from foreign organisms, mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissue, causing inflammation and, in some cases, damage to myelin within the spinal cord.
Because some affected individuals also have autoimmune diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus, Sjogren’s syndrome, and sarcoidosis, some scientists suggest that transverse myelitis may also be an autoimmune disorder. In addition, some cancers may trigger an abnormal immune response that may lead to transverse myelitis.
Some cases of transverse myelitis result from spinal arteriovenous malformations (abnormalities that alter normal patterns of blood flow) or vascular diseases such as atherosclerosis that cause ischemia, a reduction in normal levels of oxygen in spinal cord tissues. Ischemia can result from bleeding (hemorrhage) within the spinal cord, blood vessel blockage or narrowing, or other less common factors. Blood vessels bring oxygen and nutrients to spinal cord tissues and remove metabolic waste products. When these vessels become narrowed or blocked, they cannot deliver sufficient amounts of oxygen-laden blood to spinal cord tissues. When a specific region of the spinal cord becomes starved of oxygen, or ischemic, nerve cells and fibers may begin to deteriorate relatively quickly. This damage may cause widespread inflammation, sometimes leading to transverse myelitis. Most people who develop the condition as a result of vascular disease are past the age of 50, have cardiac disease, or have recently undergone a chest or abdominal operation.
What are the symptoms of transverse myelitis?
From this wide array of symptoms, four classic features of transverse myelitis emerge: (1) weakness of the legs and arms, (2) pain, (3) sensory alteration, and (4) bowel and bladder dysfunction. Most patients will experience weakness of varying degrees in their legs; some also experience it in their arms. Initially, people with transverse myelitis may notice that they are stumbling or dragging one foot or that their legs seem heavier than normal. Coordination of hand and arm movements, as well as arm and hand strength may also be compromised. Progression of the disease over several weeks often leads to full paralysis of the legs, requiring the patient to use a wheelchair.
Pain is the primary presenting symptom of transverse myelitis in approximately one-third to one-half of all patients. The pain may be localized in the lower back or may consist of sharp, shooting sensations that radiate down the legs or arms or around the torso.
How is transverse myelitis diagnosed?
Blood tests may be performed to rule out various disorders such as systemic lupus erythematosus, HIV infection, and vitamin B12 deficiency. In some patients with transverse myelitis, the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the spinal cord and brain contains more protein than usual and an increased number of leukocytes (white blood cells), indicating possible infection. A spinal tap may be performed to obtain fluid to study these factors.
How is transverse myelitis treated?
Following initial therapy, the most critical part of the treatment for this disorder consists of keeping the patient’s body functioning while hoping for either complete or partial spontaneous recovery of the nervous system. This may sometimes require placing the patient on a respirator. Patients with acute symptoms, such as paralysis, are most often treated in a hospital or in a rehabilitation facility where a specialized medical team can prevent or treat problems that afflict paralyzed patients. Often, even before recovery begins, caregivers may be instructed to move patients’ limbs manually to help keep the muscles flexible and strong, and to reduce the likelihood of pressure sores developing in immobilized areas. Later, if patients begin to recover limb control, physical therapy begins to help improve muscle strength, coordination, and range of motion.
What therapies are available to help patients left with permanent physical disabilities?
Commonly experienced permanent neurological deficits resulting from transverse myelitis include severe weakness, spasticity (painful muscle stiffness or contractions), or paralysis; incontinence; and chronic pain. Such deficits can substantially interfere with a person’s ability to carry out everyday activities such as bathing, dressing, and performing household tasks.
People living with permanent disability may feel a range of emotions, from fear and sadness to frustration and anger. Such feelings are natural responses, but they can sometimes jeopardize health and potential for functional recovery. Those with permanent disabilities frequently experience clinical depression. Fortunately, depression is treatable, due to the development of a wide range of medications that can be used with psychotherapeutic treatment.
Today, most rehabilitation programs attempt to address the emotional dimensions along with the physical problems resulting from permanent disability. Patients typically consult with a range of rehabilitation specialists, who may include physiatrists (physicians specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation), physical therapists, occupational therapists, vocational therapists, and mental health care professionals.
Physical Therapy: Physiatrists and physical therapists treat disabilities that result from motor and sensory impairments. Their aim is to help patients increase their strength and endurance, improve coordination, reduce spasticity and muscle wasting in paralyzed limbs, and regain greater control over bladder and bowel function through various exercises. Physiatrists and physical therapists teach paralyzed patients techniques for using assistive devices such as wheelchairs, canes, or braces as effectively as possible. Paralyzed patients also learn ways to avoid developing painful pressure sores on immobilized parts of the body, which may lead to increased pain or systemic infection. In addition, physiatrists and physical therapists are involved in pain management. A wide variety of drugs now exist that can alleviate the pain that results from spinal cord injuries such as those caused by transverse myelitis. These include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen or naproxen; antidepressant drugs such as amitryptyline (tricyclic) and sertraline (a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor); and anticonvulsant drugs such as phenytoin and gabapentine.
Occupational Therapy: Occupational therapists help individuals learn new ways to maintain or rebuild their independence by participating in meaningful, self-directed, goal-oriented, everyday tasks (occupations) such as bathing and dressing. They teach people how to function at the lightest level possible, by developing compensatory strategies, suggesting changes in their homes to improve safety (such as installing grab bars in bathrooms), changing obstacles in their environment that interfere with normal activity, and instructing on how to use assistive devices.
Vocational Therapy: In addition to acquainting people with their rights as defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and helping people develop and promote work skills, vocational therapists identify potential employers, assist in job searches, and act as mediators between employees and employers to secure reasonable workplace accommodations.
What is the prognosis?
The majority of people with this disorder experience only one episode although in rare cases recurrent or relapsing transverse myelitis does occur. Some patients recover completely, then experience a relapse. Others begin to recover, then suffer worsening of symptoms before recovery continues. In all cases of relapse, physicians will likely investigate possible underlying causes such as MS or systemic lupus erythematosus since most people who experience relapse have an underlying disorder.
What research is being done?
The NINDS also funds researchers who are using animal models of spinal cord injury to study strategies for replacement or regeneration of spinal cord nerve cells. The ultimate goals of these studies are to encourage the same regeneration in humans and to restore function to paralyzed patients. Scientists are also developing neural prostheses to help patients with spinal cord damage compensate for lost function. These sophisticated electrical and mechanical devices connect with the nervous system to supplement or replace lost motor and sensory function. Neural prostheses for spinal cord injured patients are being tested in humans.
Where can I get more information?
Date Posted: January 2011