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Acute Transverse Myelitis

By

Michael Rubin

, MDCM, Weill Cornell Medical College

Last full review/revision Feb 2020| Content last modified Feb 2020
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Acute transverse myelitis is inflammation that affects the spinal cord across its entire width (transversely) and thus blocks transmission of nerve impulses traveling up or down the spinal cord.

  • Acute transverse myelitis may develop in people who have certain disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, neuromyelitis optica, Lyme disease, or lupus, or who take certain drugs.

  • 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 treatment may involve corticosteroids or sometimes plasma exchange.

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

What triggers acute transverse myelitis is unknown, but it may result from an autoimmune reaction—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:

It sometimes develops after mild viral infections or a vaccination.

Symptoms

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

  • Magnetic resonance imaging

  • A spinal tap

  • Other tests to look for causes

Symptoms suggest the diagnosis. But doctors must distinguish acute transverse myelitis from other disorders that cause similar symptoms, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, spinal cord compression, or blockage of the blood supply to the spinal cord.

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 (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 is 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 drugs that can cause acute transverse myelitis.

Prognosis

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.

Treatment

  • Treatment of the cause, if identified

  • Sometimes corticosteroids

  • 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—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.

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
Click here for the Professional Version
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