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 onetime 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 various parts of your body, including:

  • brain
  • eyes
  • 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 symptom of MS.

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

MS and transverse myelitis share some common symptoms, such as a tingling sensation in the arms and legs.

There are also some significant differences between MS and transverse myelitis:

Transverse myelitis symptoms

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

MS symptoms

MS symptoms usually include:

  • numbness or weakness in the limbs
  • vision problems
  • loss of coordination

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.

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.

A doctor usually orders magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to diagnose transverse myelitis. An MRI of your spinal cord will show inflammation. It will help your doctor determine whether your pain is from a slipped disc or another condition like MS.

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

Treatment for transverse myelitis often begins with drugs to decrease inflammation. Since moving your limbs is important to help keep them healthy, you will also likely receive physical therapy to help repair nerve damage.

Waiting to get treatment is dangerous. The sooner you are treated after symptoms appear, the better your chance of recovery.