Transverse myelitis: a question and an answer

A question from one of my readers. My reply to it follows.



Dear Sir/Madam,

I am under a Neurologist’s care at present. A few weeks back I had tingling, numbness, stiffness in my right wrist, within days/hours this spread from my hand to my neck all the way down the right side of my body. CAT scan and xray clear. MRI scan shows an abnormality within the upper part of the cervical spine consistent with demyelination. Also shows a single small focus of abnormal signal in the left frontal region. He feels it possible I may have an isolated episode of tranverse myelitis. I also have an odd sensation when I put my chin on my chest, I have felt this for approx 6 months plus, it feels like an elastic band stretching, not painful just an odd feeling. The symptoms have not got better 3 weeks on and now I feel the same tingling in my left fingers the same as this started in the right side. I have been given MEDRONE today (19/12/11) 100mg and told to take 5 tablets all in one go so I have 500mg dose. Not sure I like the feeling that comes with these tablets and thats spacing them out, don’t think I could take them all together. Any feed back would be greatfully appreciated. I’m 41 years old, fit and healthy usually, work hard, mum of 2. Just had an early diagnosis of menopause. Many thanks. Kind regards. N



Dear N,
thank you for writing in to me. From your history it seems you were diagnosed with transverse myelitis. Transverse myelitis (TM) as the name suggests is an inflammatory process of the spinal cord and usually involves the cervical or thoracic spinal cord. MRI of the cervical spine further helps to characterize it: complete TM Vs incomplete TM.


There can be many causes of TM: inflammatory/demyelinating (multiple sclerosis among other diseases), infectious causes, paraneoplastic, postvaccinal (drugs and other toxic causes) and autoimmune/collagen vascular diseases. Sometimes inspite of an extensive work-up no cause can be determined. This is termed idiopathic TM.

Based on the site and extent of the lesion, the symptoms vary. If the patient has a complete TM high up in the cervical cord (like around C5-C6): there is usually involvement of both arms and legs (quadriparesis). The bladder and bowel function may also be affected. If the lesion is small and eccentrically placed in the cervical cord (incomplete TM), the symptoms may not be so symmetrical and the patient may present with numbness and weakness in one arm and leg. If the lesion is below C6-C7, usually the arms are spared and only the legs are involved.

You say you experience an odd sensation when you put your chin to your chest. What you are experiencing is called the Lhermitte’s sign (LS). It is an electric/shock like sensation which runs down the back and into the limbs and is elicited by bending the head forward. This occurs because the nerve tracts (dorsal columns which carry sensations such as joint sense, vibration sense and position sense) running down the cervical spine are damaged. LS is a nonspecific sign and can be seen in many diseases which involve the dorsal columns. Transverse myelitis is one such disease process and hence this sign can be elicited in some patients.

Once a patient is diagnosed with TM, an extensive evaluation is carried out to determine the cause of TM. The diseases some of which I have mentioned before are looked for and meticulously excluded. MRI of the brain and other tests to rule out multiple sclerosis may be carried out (as it seems were done in your case) to secure the diagnosis–is the TM because of some underlying disease and if so what is the disease or is the TM truly idiopathic?

Treatment of TM depends upon the cause of TM. Like for example if the TM is due to a demyelinating disease such as multiple sclerosis, the treatment involves treatment of MS with immunomodulating drugs. If the cause is infectious, then the underlying infection is treated. If the patient has idiopathic TM and in some cases of inflammatory MS, then based on the time of your clinical presentation, your doctor may decide to treat you with high dose steroids (usually 500-1000mg of methylprednisolone is given once a day for 3 to 5 days). This helps to hasten recovery.

I hope I have answered some of your questions N.

Personal Regards,

Nitin Sethi, MD


One thought on “Transverse myelitis: a question and an answer

  1. I have problems for the last 14 years. My doctor says it is fibromyalgia but it is getting very progressive so I insisted in seeing a MS clinic (Vancouver BC Canada). After all the tests they found a white mass on my white matter of the brain. Also they found that my brain is aging faster than my age. I’m 62 and my brain shows signs of 80 years old. My doctor says that the white mass is indeterminate and it is nothing can be done for me. I still have all the symptoms I had before plus I lost my balance completely so I use a cane all the time. Some days my pains, migraines, dizziness, muscles spasms are really bad. I go to Mexico for vacation and I get an injection there of cortisone that helps with the pains. My doctor will send me to the pain clinic here for shots on my spine but it did not do anything for me and it is risky. Also he told me that in 20 years I will develop osteoporosis because of the cortisone shots but if my brain is older than me, I will be dead in 20 years so I keep taking the shots so at least I can walk now. Is there anything to determine what kind of white mass I have in the brain? Is there anything to stop my brain from aging faster than my body?

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