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Transverse Myelitis - The Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Medical Management

Published on Aug 24, 2022 and last reviewed on Mar 15, 2023   -  4 min read


Transverse myelitis is an inflammatory condition of the spinal cord, where nerves lose their myelin covering. This causes pain, paralysis, and other symptoms.

What Is Transverse Myelitis?

Transverse myelitis is a rare neurological condition characterized by inflammation of a section of the spinal cord. This can cause damage to myelin, the insulating sheath covering the nerve cell fibers (including those in the brain and the spinal cord). Myelin fits around the nerve cells, just like the insulation that covers an electric wire, and allows for quick and efficient transmission of electrical impulses along with them. When myelin is damaged, the nerves get damaged as well, making it harder for them to send signals to other parts of the body. In transverse myelitis, the nerves of both sides of the spinal cord are affected. And this interrupts the messages the spinal cord sends throughout the body. In severe cases, the condition can lead to major disabilities.

What Are the Causes for Transverse Myelitis?

The underlying cause of transverse myelitis is unknown to the majority of patients. The inflammation of the nerves may be associated with the following conditions:

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Transverse Myelitis?

One may develop symptoms within a few hours of nerve damage or a few days. The progress of the disease is very quick, and symptoms turn severe in a short period. One experiences the discomforts associated with this condition below the area of nerve damage in the spinal cord. In the majority of cases, both sides of the body are affected. Symptoms include:

  • Pain in the lower back - It may be a sharp or blunt pain that shoots down the legs or arms or around the chest and abdomen.

  • Weakness or paralysis in the legs or arms. One may experience difficulty walking, tend to drag the feet or stumble while walking due to loss of balance.

  • Muscle spasms - Where occasionally muscles go painfully stiff and tight.

  • Troubles with bowel and bladder control, including urinary incontinence, difficulty urinating, a need to urinate more frequently, and constipation.

  • Abnormal sensations such as; pins and needles feeling in the feet, toes, or legs. There may be tingling, coldness, numbness, and a burning feeling over the affected area. One tends to get over-sensitive to changes in temperature and touch.

  • Sexual dysfunction involves a lack of orgasms. Men may suffer erectile dysfunction as well.

  • The long-term pain and illness may cause depression and anxiety in the majority of the affected individuals.

  • Some suffer a loss of appetite, respiratory issues, and fever.

How to Diagnose Transverse Myelitis?

The doctor will make the diagnosis based on symptoms, medical history review, assessment of nerve function, and test results. The diagnostic tests that may indicate inflammation of the spinal cord and rule out other disorders include:

  • A comprehensive neurological examination to evaluate the muscle tone and reflexes to identify the level of weakness and loss of muscle function in the affected area. One is tested for the level of pain and abnormal sensations as well.

  • A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of the spinal cord helps identify inflammation and other abnormalities. And also rule out other disease conditions with similar symptoms.

  • A lumbar puncture or spinal tap procedure, where a needle is used to draw small amounts of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that surrounds the spinal cords and the brain. This fluid is tested for signs of inflammation and other abnormalities.

  • Blood tests to identify infections and antibodies associated with neuromyelitis optica and to rule out other conditions.

What Are the Treatments for Transverse Myelitis?

Since transverse myelitis is an inflammatory condition, the treatment aims to suppress the inflammation and control further demyelination of nerves and subsequent nerve damage. If there is an underlying infection, one needs to eliminate that as well. Reducing the symptoms is also a priority. The doctor may prescribe:

  1. Intravenous steroids to reduce inflammation in the spinal column.

  2. Plasma exchange therapy for people who do not respond to intravenous steroids. Here, the liquid part of the blood taken from a healthy person is used to replace the plasma of the affected individual.

  3. Antibiotic, antiviral, and antifungal medications for people with an infection in the spinal cord.

  4. Pain medication to lessen the chronic pain and muscle spasm. Over-the-counter pain medications such as Acetaminophen (Tylenol), non-steroidal, and anti-inflammatory drugs such as Naproxen or Ibuprofen (Naprosyn, Alleve, Motrin), can help relieve the muscle pain. One may also apply heat or cold in the painful areas for relief.

  5. Medications to treat other complications such as urinary or bowel dysfunction, anxiety, and depression.

  6. Medications to prevent a recurrent attack.

One may advise on additional treatment modalities to focus on long-term recovery and care. These may include:

  1. Physical therapy to help improve strength and coordination. One may adopt devices like canes, braces, or wheelchairs for mobility assistance.

  2. Occupational therapy to learn new ways to perform day-to-day activities such as bathing, cleaning the house, etc.

  3. Psychotherapy may help with anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, and other behavioral issues. One may seek professional counseling to cope with the stress and emotional agony resulting from transverse myelitis.


Transverse myelitis affects men and women equally, regardless of the age or race in which they are born. Most people recover within three months from the start of symptoms. Recovery may be complete or with continuing moderate disabilities. A few individuals may suffer permanent disability with transverse myelitis. One should contact the doctor if there are symptoms like sudden sharp pain in the lower back with numbness and weakness in the arms and legs.

Last reviewed at:
15 Mar 2023  -  4 min read




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