Your QuestionCan you provide me with information about transverse myelitis?
We have identified the following information that we hope you find helpful. If you still have questions, please contact us.
Questions on this page
- What is transverse myelitis?
- What symptoms are associated with transverse myelitis?
- What causes transverse myelitis?
- How is transverse myelitis diagnosed?
- How might transverse myelitis be treated?
- What is the prognosis for individuals with transverse myelitis?
- Who can I contact to learn more about transverse myelitis?
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: Some patients report stumbling, dragging one foot or notice 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. It 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 patients experience heightened sensitivity to touch. Some even report that wearing clothes or a light touch with a finger causes significant pain. 
Bowel and bladder dysfunction: Some patients report bowel or bladder dysfunction as their first symptom of transverse myelitis. This may mean an increased frequency or urge to urinate or defecate, 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 virus that causes chickenpox and shingles), herpes simplex, cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr, influenza, echovirus, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis A, measles, and rubella. Bacterial skin infections, middle-ear infections (otitis media), syphilis, Lyme disease, and Mycoplasma pneumoniae (bacterial pneumonia) have also been associated with the condition.  In some cases, the infectious agent may directly invade the spinal cord and produce symptoms of transverse myelitis.  In other 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. 
Autoimmune diseases. Transverse myelitis occasionally develops in people who have other autoimmune diseases.  These may include systemic lupus erythematosus, Sjogren’s syndrome, and sarcoidosis. 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. 
Multiple sclerosis (MS). An acute, rapidly progressing form of transverse myelitis sometimes signals the first attack of multiple sclerosis (MS). It is important to note, however, that studies indicate that most people who develop transverse myelitis do not go on to develop MS.  Transverse myelitis occurring as a sign or symptom of multiple sclerosis usually manifests on one side of the body only. 
Vaccinations. Rarely, transverse myelitis may develop following certain vaccinations (chickenpox and rabies).  Although it's unclear how transverse myelitis and vaccinations are related, an immune response is suggested. 
Cancers. Myelitis related to cancer (called a paraneoplastic syndrome) is uncommon.  However, some cancers may trigger an abnormal immune response that may lead to transverse myelitis. 
Insufficient blood flow through the blood vessels located in the spinal cord. 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. 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. 
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 protein than usual and an increased number of leukocytes (white blood cells), indicating possible infection. A spinal tap (lumbar puncture) may be performed to obtain fluid to study these factors. 
Chronic pain is a common complication of transverse myelitis. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs — such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn, others) — can help reduce inflammation and relieve pain.  Bedrest is often recommended during the initial days and weeks after onset of the disorder. 
Based on patient response and test results, additional therapeutic options may be added. Plasma exchange therapy is often used for those with moderate to severe transverse myelitis who don’t show much improvement after being treated with intravenous steroids.  This therapy involves removing the straw-colored fluid in which blood cells are suspended (plasma) and replacing the plasma loss with special fluids. It's not certain how this therapy helps people with transverse myelitis, but it may be that plasma exchange removes antibodies that are involved in inflammation. 
Some patients respond very well to intravenous cyclophosphamide (a drug often used for lymphomas or leukemia). It is very important that an experienced oncology team be involved in the administration of this drug, and patients should be monitored carefully. Ongoing treatment with chemical agents that modify immune response (such as azathioprine, methotrexate, mycophenolate or oral cyclophosphamide) can be considered for the small subset of patients that experience recurrent transverse myelitis.
Individuals with permanent physical disabilities may benefit from physical therapy, occupational therapy and vocational therapy. 
Recovery from transverse myelitis usually begins within 2 to 12 weeks of the onset of symptoms 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 normally and experience minimal urinary or bowel effects and paresthesias. Another one-third show only fair recovery and are left with significant deficits such as spastic gait, sensory dysfunction, and prominent urinary urgency or incontinence. The remaining one-third show no recovery at all, remaining wheelchair-bound or bedridden with marked dependence on others for basic 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. 
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. 
You can contact the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to learn more about transverse myelitis.
NINDS provides an information page on transverse myelitis at the following web site.
NIH Neurological Institute
P.O. Box 5801
Bethesda, MD 20824
Email form: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/contact_us.htm
Web site: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/
You can also contact the following organizations to obtain information about transverse myelitis.
The Transverse Myelitis Center at Johns Hopkins University
Attn: Mary Brown
600 North Wolfe Street
Baltimore, MD 21287
Web site: http://hopkinsneuro.org/tm/what_we_do.cfm
Tranverse Myelitis Association
1787 Sutter Parkway
Powell, OH 43065-8806
Web site: http://www.myelitis.org
- Transverse Myelitis Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). February 22, 2008 ; http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/transversemyelitis/detail_transversemyelitis.htm. Accessed 8/14/2008.
- Transverse Myelitis [Introduction]. The Transverse Myelitis Association. 2006; http://www.myelitis.org/. Accessed 8/14/2008.
- Transverse Myelitis. Johns Hopkins University Transverse Myelitis Center. http://hopkinsneuro.org/tm/disease.cfm/condition/Transverse_Myelitis. Accessed 8/15/2008.
- Joanne Lynn. Transverse Myelitis: Symptoms, Causes and Diagnosis. Transverse Myelitis Association. July 17, 2007; http://www.myelitis.org/tm.htm. Accessed 8/15/2008.
- Transverse Myelitis: Causes. MayoClinic.com. January 4, 2007; http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/transverse-myelitis/DS00854/DSECTION=causes. Accessed 8/15/2008.
- Transverse Myelitis: Tests and diagosis. MayoClinic.com. January 4, 2007; http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/transverse-myelitis/DS00854/DSECTION=tests-and-diagnosis. Accessed 8/15/2008.
- Transverse Myelitis: Treatments and drugs. MayoClinic.com. January 4, 2007; http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/transverse-myelitis/DS00854/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs. Accessed 8/15/2008.