Transverse Myelitis: What It Is and How It's Connected to MS

Written by Heidi Godman | Published on January 7, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George T. Krucik, MD, MBA on January 7, 2014

What Is Transverse Myelitis?

Transverse myelitis is a condition in which a section of the spinal cord becomes inflamed. This can cause damage to the myelin, the covering for nerve cell fibers. As a result, communication between nerve cells in the spinal cord and the rest of the body can be interrupted. 

Symptoms range from back pain to more serious problems, such as paralysis or loss of bowel control.

Multiple Sclerosis Connection

Transverse myelitis is often a one-time illness. But for some people, transverse myelitis is an early symptom of another serious disease of the nervous system. One such disease is multiple sclerosis (MS).

MS is a chronic disease with no cure. It occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the central nervous system. MS can affect the brain, eyes, and limbs. The severity of symptoms varies from person to person. 

Partial Myelitis

Transverse myelitis means both sides of a cross-section of the spinal cord are inflamed. Partial myelitis, which affects only one side of the cross-section, is more commonly a sign of MS. 

However, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke recommends that anyone with transverse myelitis or partial myelitis get checked for MS.

Causes of Transverse Myelitis and MS

The causes of transverse myelitis aren’t completely understood. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke suggests that the disease may be caused by an infection. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society reports that MS also may be caused by an immune system response. 

Who Is at Risk?

Transverse myelitis can occur in men and women of all ages and races. Like MS, it affects more women than men. In addition, transverse myelitis tends to appear in younger people. Those between the ages of 10 and 19 and between 30 and 39 face the highest risks of transverse myelitis, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. MS usually develops in people between the ages of 20 and 40.

Symptom Similarities and Differences

MS and transverse myelitis share some common symptoms such as a tingling sensation in the arms and legs. Still, there are some significant differences.

For example, people with transverse myelitis often experience back pain as their first symptom. Extreme sensitivity to touch is also present in about 80 percent of patients with transverse myelitis, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

MS symptoms usually include numbness or weakness in the limbs, vision problems and loss of coordination.

Diagnosis

A doctor will usually order magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to diagnose transverse myelitis. An MRI of the spinal cord can show inflammation and if the pain is from a slipped disc or another condition like MS.

For a proper diagnosis, the doctor must get a medical and family history of the patient. A neurological exam is also required to diagnose transverse myelitis and MS. 

Treatment and Recovery

Treatment for transverse myelitis often begins with drugs that decrease inflammation. Moving the limbs is important to help keep them healthy, so most patients receive physical therapy to help repair nerve damage. 

Waiting to get treatment is dangerous. The sooner that a patient is treated after symptoms appear, the better their chance of a good recovery.

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