Transverse myelitis

What is Transverse Myelitis?

Transverse myelitis is a condition involving spinal cord inflammation which causes a disruption to signals being sent from the brain to other parts of the body.

The spinal cord and our nerves are covered by a fatty, protective substance called myelin. Transverse myelitis has the potential to damage this layer causing scarring which then impacts on the way nerve impulses move from one point to another.

It’s a relatively rare condition and can affect anyone, but is more often seen in teenage children and adults between the ages of 30 and 39. The cause of transverse myelitis is still uncertain but it can appear as a symptom of other medical conditions, including in those who have spinal cord injuries.

Here we take a closer look at how this condition affects those who have been diagnosed with it and what can be done to treat it.

Symptoms of Transverse Myelitis

There a numerous symptoms which may develop over a period of just a few hours but can also take several weeks to manifest.

These include:

  • Pain in the back or neck
  • A general weakness in areas like the arms and legs
  • A burning or tingling sensations in areas like the legs
  • Individuals with this disease could be oversensitive to touch
  • In severe cases, there may be loss of bladder and bowel control, depending on where on the spine the damage occurs.

The position where transverse myelitis occurs is important when it comes to developing symptoms. An inflamed spinal cord that affects the neck area will generally impact on all areas below this. If it occurs lower down, the individual may only experience issues in their legs.

Causes of Transverse Myelitis

Whilst it isn’t certain what the definitive cause of transverse myelitis is, it is thought that there may be a connection with the immune system attacking the spinal cord. Transverse myelitis is a condition which seems to appear in connection with a number of different disorders.

These include:

  • Viral infections involving the respiratory or gastrointestinal tract: There are a number of different viruses that can impact on the spinal cord, often occurring after the initial infection has improved.
  • Autoimmune conditions: Diseases such as lupus and HIV have been shown to cause swelling on the spine.
  • Multiple sclerosis: This is a condition that impacts on the immune system which is why transverse myelitis might be a symptom in some patients.

Another condition that can affect the myelin in the spinal cord is Devic’s disease (neuromyelitis optica), which is a disorder that can cause vision loss and eye pain.

There could also be a connection between transverse myelitis and vaccinations, although more research needs to be done in this area. Current understanding suggests that a vaccination may cause an immune response which attacks the spinal cord by mistake.

Spinal cord inflammation
Inflammation of the spinal cord

Treatment of Transverse Myelitis

There is no effective cure for the disease but many people recover after having suffered from an episode. The initial treatment is focused on dealing with the inflammation. Steroids can be used in high doses to speed up recovery.

Severe cases of transverse myelitis may require the individual to be hospitalized, but this is fairly rare.

How Inflammation Can Affect Spinal Cord Injury Recovery

Inflammation is often a symptom that presents itself following a spinal cord injury. Whilst in the past this was seen as a potential problem, recent research suggests that the development of an inflamed spinal cord may actually have beneficial effects during spinal cord injury recovery.

In traditional treatment, reducing the amount of inflammation is seen as important to the prognosis of the individual who has sustained an injury to their spine. It is seen in the acute stages of the injury and often determines the amount of rehabilitative work that can be carried out at the time.

Spinal cord inflammation will essentially ‘squeeze’ the nerves and impede the transmission of signals from the brain to the area below the injury. Research at the University of Alberta, however, shows that this process could play a vital role in regaining motor control and skills following a spinal cord injury.

The team of researchers induced inflammation in rats and found that early training improved motor function. The challenge in humans with spinal cord injuries, however, is that this needs to be implemented so early in the recovery process that it is not possible for many individuals.

Researchers are currently looking at the viability of using retraining strategies to improve motor function for those with spinal cord injuries when spinal inflammation has occurred.