Acute transverse myelitis may develop in people who have certain disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, neuromyelitis optica, Lyme disease, or lupus, COVID-19, or who take certain medications.
People have sudden back pain and feel a band of tightness around the affected area, sometimes followed by severe symptoms, such as paralysis.
Magnetic resonance imaging may help doctors make the diagnosis, but a spinal tap may be needed.
About one third of people recover, about one third continue to have some problems, and about one third recover very little.
The cause is treated if possible, or if not possible, treatment may involve corticosteroids or sometimes plasma exchange.
(See also Overview of Spinal Cord Disorders Overview of Spinal Cord Disorders Spinal cord disorders can cause permanent severe problems, such as paralysis or impaired bladder and bowel control ( urinary incontinence and fecal incontinence). Sometimes these problems can... read more .)
In the United States, acute transverse myelitis is estimated to occur in about 1,400 people each year. Also, about 33,000 people are thought to have some type of disability due to the disorder.
In acute transverse myelitis, the entire width of one or more areas of the spinal cord, usually in the chest (thoracic area), becomes inflamed.
Causes of Acute Transverse Myelitis
What triggers acute transverse myelitis is unknown, but it may result from an autoimmune reaction Autoimmune Disorders An autoimmune disorder is a malfunction of the body's immune system that causes the body to attack its own tissues. What triggers an autoimmune disorder is not known. Symptoms vary depending... read more —when the immune system misinterprets the body's tissues as foreign and produces antibodies that attack and damage tissues. In the case of acute transverse myelitis, the tissues damaged are in the spinal cord.
Acute transverse myelitis may also develop in people with the following:
Neuromyelitis optica Neuromyelitis Optica Spectrum Disorder (NMOSD) Neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder affects mainly the nerves in the eyes and spinal cord, causing patches of myelin (the substance that covers most nerve fibers) and the nerve fibers under... read more , a disorder that can also cause visual problems and that may come and go
Certain bacterial infections (such as Lyme disease Lyme Disease Lyme disease is a tick-transmitted infection caused by Borrelia species, primarily by Borrelia burgdorferi and sometimes by Borrelia mayonii in the United States. These... read more , syphilis Syphilis Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. It can occur in three stages of symptoms, separated by periods of apparent good health. Syphilis... read more , COVID-19 COVID-19 COVID-19 is an acute respiratory illness that can be severe and is caused by the coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2. Symptoms of COVID-19 vary significantly. Two types of tests can be used to diagnose... read more , or tuberculosis Tuberculosis (TB) Tuberculosis is a chronic contagious infection caused by the airborne bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It usually affects the lungs, but almost any organ can be involved. Tuberculosis... read more )
Inflammation of blood vessels (vasculitis Overview of Vasculitis Vasculitic disorders are caused by inflammation of the blood vessels (vasculitis). Vasculitis can be triggered by certain infections or drugs or can occur for unknown reasons. People may have... read more ), including lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) Systemic lupus erythematosus is a chronic autoimmune inflammatory connective tissue disorder that can involve joints, kidneys, skin, mucous membranes, and blood vessel walls. Problems in the... read more )
Viral meningoencephalitis (an infection of the brain and its surrounding tissues)
Injection of heroin into a vein (intravenous) or under the skin or use of amphetamines
It sometimes develops after mild viral infections or a vaccination.
Symptoms of Acute Transverse Myelitis
Usually, symptoms of acute transverse myelitis begin suddenly with pain in the back and a bandlike tightness around the affected area of the body (such as the chest or abdomen). People with this disorder may also have pain in the head or neck.
Within hours to a few days, tingling, numbness, and muscle weakness develop in the feet and move upward. Urinating becomes difficult, although some people feel an urgent need to urinate (urgency). Symptoms may worsen over several more days and may become severe, resulting in paralysis, loss of sensation, retention of urine, and loss of bladder and bowel control.
The degree of disability depends on the location (level) of the inflammation in the spinal cord and the severity of the inflammation.
Diagnosis of Acute Transverse Myelitis
Magnetic resonance imaging
A spinal tap
Other tests to look for causes
Symptoms suggest the diagnosis of acute transverse myelitis. But doctors must distinguish acute transverse myelitis from other disorders that cause similar symptoms, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) Guillain-Barré syndrome is a form of polyneuropathy causing muscle weakness, which usually worsens over a few days to weeks, then slowly improves or returns to normal on its own. With treatment... read more , spinal cord compression Blockage of the Blood Supply to the Spinal Cord Blockage of an artery carrying blood to the spinal cord prevents the cord from getting blood and thus oxygen. As a result, tissues can die (called infarction). Causes include severe atherosclerosis... read more , or blockage of the blood supply to the spinal cord Blockage of the Blood Supply to the Spinal Cord Blockage of an artery carrying blood to the spinal cord prevents the cord from getting blood and thus oxygen. As a result, tissues can die (called infarction). Causes include severe atherosclerosis... read more .
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the spinal cord is done first. MRI helps eliminate other, treatable possible causes of the symptoms, such as spinal cord compression. If myelitis is severe, MRI typically shows swelling of the spinal cord due to inflammation.
A spinal tap Spinal Tap (lumbar puncture) is done to obtain a sample of cerebrospinal cord fluid. If acute transverse myelitis is present, the number of certain white blood cells and the protein level in the cerebrospinal fluid are increased.
Tests, such as a chest x-ray and blood tests, are also done to look for causes. Doctors also ask people about use of medications and recreational drugs that can cause acute transverse myelitis.
Treatment of Acute Transverse Myelitis
Treatment of the cause, if identified
Sometimes plasma exchange
If transverse myelitis is caused by another disorder, that disorder is treated.
If the cause cannot be identified, high doses of corticosteroids such as prednisone are often given to suppress the immune system, which may be involved in acute transverse myelitis.
Plasma exchange Plateletpheresis (platelet donation) In addition to normal blood donation and transfusion, special procedures are sometimes used. In plateletpheresis, a donor gives only platelets rather than whole blood. Whole blood is drawn from... read more —removal of a large amount of plasma (the liquid part of blood) plus plasma transfusions—may also be done. The goal is to remove from the blood any antibodies that are attacking and damaging the spinal cord.
However, whether corticosteroids and plasma exchange are useful is unclear.
Symptoms are treated.
Prognosis for Acute Transverse Myelitis
Occasionally, the disorder recurs in people with multiple sclerosis or lupus. Multiple sclerosis eventually develops in about 10 to 20% of people who have transverse myelitis with no identified cause.
Generally, the more quickly the disorder progresses, the worse the outlook. Severe pain suggests worse inflammation. The outcome is split evenly:
About one third of people recover.
About one third continue to have some muscle weakness and urinary problems (urgency or loss of bladder control).
About one third recover very little. They remain confined to a wheelchair or bed, continue to have bladder and bowel problems, and require help with daily activities.