Transverse myelitis may be either acute (developing over hours to several days) or subacute (developing over 1 to 2 weeks). Initial symptoms usually include localized lower back pain, sudden paresthesias (abnormal sensations such as burning, tickling, pricking, or tingling) in the legs, sensory loss, and paraparesis (partial paralysis of the legs). Paraparesis often progresses to paraplegia (paralysis of the legs and lower part of the trunk). Urinary bladder and bowel dysfunction is common. Many patients also report experiencing muscle spasms, a general feeling of discomfort, headache, fever, and loss of appetite. Depending on which segment of the spinal cord is involved, some patients may experience respiratory problems as well.
From this wide array of symptoms, four classic features of transverse myelitis emerge:
Weakness of the legs and arms: Most people with transverse myelitis will experience weakness of varying degrees in their legs; some also experience it in their arms. Initially, people with this condition may notice that they are stumbling, dragging one foot or that both legs seem heavier than normal. Depending on the level of involvement within the spinal cord, coordination or strength in the hands and arms may also be affected.
Pain: Up to half of those with transverse myelitis report pain as the first symptom of the disorder. The pain can be localized to the back, or appear as sharp, shooting pain that radiates down the legs, arms or around the torso.
Sensory alteration: Loss of the ability to experience pain or temperature sensitivity is one of the most common sensory changes. Patients who are experiencing altered sensitivity usually report numbness, tingling, coldness or burning. Up to 80 percent of people with transverse myelitis experience heightened sensitivity to touch. Some even report that wearing clothes or a light touch with a finger causes significant pain. Many also experience heightened sensitivity to changes in temperature or to extreme heat or cold.
Bowel and bladder dysfunction: Some people with transverse myelitis report bowel or bladder dysfunction as their first symptom. This may mean an increased frequency or urge to urinate or have a bowel movement, incontinence, difficulty voiding, sensation of incomplete evacuation or constipation.
Researchers are uncertain of the exact causes of transverse myelitis. The inflammation that causes such extensive damage to nerve fibers of the spinal cord may occur in isolation or in the setting of another illness. When it occurs without apparent underlying cause, it is referred to as idiopathic. Transverse myelitis is idiopathic in about 60% of cases.
The following illnesses or agents have been associated with transverse myelitis:
Infectious agents. Transverse myelitis often develops following viral infections. Infectious agents suspected of causing transverse myelitis include varicella zoster (the
Underlying demyelinating disease of the
Vaccinations. Rarely, transverse myelitis may develop following certain vaccinations (hepatitis B, measles-mumps-rubella, and diptheria-tetanus). Although it's unclear how transverse myelitis and vaccinations are related, an immune response is suggested.
Blood tests may also 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
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Recovery from transverse myelitis usually begins within 2 to 12 weeks after symptoms begin and may continue for up to 2 years. However, if there is no improvement within the first 3 to 6 months, significant recovery is unlikely. About one-third of people affected with transverse myelitis experience good or full recovery from their symptoms. They regain the ability to walk and experience few urinary or bowel effects and paresthesias. Another one-third have partial recovery and continue to have spastic gait, sensory dysfunction, and urinary urgency or incontinence. The remaining one-third have severe mobility disability and require assistance for the functions of daily living. Unfortunately, making predictions about individual cases is difficult. However, research has shown that a rapid onset of symptoms generally results in poorer recovery outcomes.
Most people with transverse myelitis experience only one episode. In rare cases, the episodes happen again. Some people recover completely, then experience a relapse. Others begin to recover, then their symptoms get worse before recovery continues. In all cases of relapse, physicians will likely investigate possible underlying causes such as multiple sclerosis or systemic lupus erythematosus since most people who experience relapse have an underlying disorder.
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These resources provide more information about this condition or associated symptoms. The in-depth resources contain medical and scientific language that may be hard to understand. You may want to review these resources with a medical professional.
Rare Disease Day at NIH on March 1, 2018
December 19, 2017
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