Transverse myelitis is a neurological disorder caused by inflammation of the spinal cord. The attacks of inflammation can damage myelin, the fatty insulating substance that covers nerve fibers, interrupting communications between nerves in the spinal cord and the rest of the body. This can cause pain or other sensory problems, weakness, or paralysis of muscles, and bladder and bowel dysfunction.
Loss of spinal cord function can occur over several hours to several weeks. Many people will only have one episode, but some may have recurrence. Transverse myelitis can be an initial sign of multiple sclerosis.
How common is transverse myelitis?
About 1,400 new cases of transverse myelitis are diagnosed each year in the U.S., and approximately 33,000 Americans are living with some type of disability resulting from the disorder.
Who gets transverse myelitis?
Transverse myelitis can affect people of all ages, but there is increased incidence between the ages of 10 and 19 years and 30 and 39 years.
How is transverse myelitis diagnosed?
The following tests may help rule out other disorders and identify the cause of transverse myelitis:
- Lumbar puncture
- Blood tests
Other conditions that may produce symptoms similar to those of transverse myelitis include:
- Tumors of the spine or spinal cord
- Vascular malformations of the spinal cord
- Herniated or bulging intervertebral disc
- Spinal abscess
- Spinal stenosis
Symptoms develop rapidly over several hours to several weeks. Nearly half of people with transverse myelitis experience the worst symptoms within 24 hours. Common early symptoms include:
- Limb weakness or paralysis beginning in your legs and moving up your body
- Sensory disturbances, such as numbness or sensitivity to touch
- Bowel and bladder dysfunction
- Back pain
- Feeling that something is wrapped around your stomach and lower back
The initial and most effective therapy for transverse myelitis is steroid treatment. If you don’t respond to the steroids, your doctor may recommend a plasma exchange.
Most people with transverse myelitis will recover at least partially, but some people with severe attacks can be left with major disabilities. If you have difficulty performing everyday tasks after an attack, neuro-rehabilitation may help you regain some lost function.
Medications may be prescribed to manage symptoms, such as chronic pain, and prevent recurrent attacks.
- Date of last review: January 24, 2017
- Author: Aimee Borazanci, MD