Spinal Diseases

Beyond traumatic injury and multiple sclerosis, what diseases and conditions affect the spinal cord?

Spinal-cord dysfunctions and disorders develop in many ways. Following are descriptions of some of the main ones:


• Transverse myelitis (TM) is a broad term used to describe a group of disorders associated with spinal-cord inflammation, usually caused by a neural injury.

TM is a fast-moving ailment that can cause infection in less than a day. Symptoms include muscle and back pain and leg weakness. Often these symptoms progress into more serious concerns such as paralysis and loss of bowel or bladder control.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke speculates that inflammation of the spinal cord may be the result of viral infections, abnormal immune reactions, or poor blood flow in the spinal-cord region. Complications associated with syphilis, measles, Lyme disease, and some vaccinations may also cause TM.

Currently there is no known cure. Patients usually receive treatment for the symptoms associated with the inflammation. Though full recovery is possible, many people with TM have permanent damage to their bodies, such as paralysis.


• Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) is a debilitating disease that weakens and eventually destroys the body’s motor neurons, which are essential for movement and bodily function. Thus, when motor neurons are affected, functions such as walking, breathing, and talking become difficult and almost impossible to perform.

There is no known cure. The average ALS patient lives only for three to five years after diagnosis. Muscles become nonfunctioning, and paralysis quickly results.


• Spina bifida is a congenital disorder that causes dysfunctional growth of the spinal cord. This condition results from a neural-tube defect that occurs during the first month of pregnancy when the spinal column does not close as completely as it should. When this happens, an abnormal growth causes hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain), motor and sensory impairments, incontinence, learning disabilities, and depression.

Sometimes the defect only causes a bubble to emerge within the spinal tube. If the bubble is small, the spinal cord may still close; in these cases this spinal disorder may not result in severe symptoms.

Because the damaged nerve tissue cannot be replaced, there is no known cure for spina bifida. However, many people born with it can expect to live normal and healthy lives.

Note: Studies have shown that veterans who may have been exposed to Agent Orange, an herbicide used during the Vietnam War, are more likely to have children born with spina bifida than are nonexposed veterans.


• Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation to many different parts of the body. The human body produces antibodies to protect itself against foreign agents (antigens). In lupus, the immune system can’t distinguish between antigens and its own cells and tissues. The body produces antibodies directed at its own tissues and cells. These new antibodies react with tissue and cells to create the immune complexes. The buildup of these immune complexes causes inflammation.

Symptoms include arthritis, anemia, and fever — making the disorder difficult to diagnose.

The exact cause of lupus is unknown. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, scientists believe certain types of infections, some antibiotics, and continued exposure to ultraviolet light and extreme stress may cause the disease.

Men develop the disorder at a much higher rate than women do.

Lupus can be life-threatening if major organs become affected. However, modern medical treatments make life with lupus easier.


Syringomyelia is a chronic spinal-cord disorder that occurs when cerebrospinal fluid flows into the spinal cord, causing the development of a cyst (syrinx), a fluid-filled sac that develops in the human body.

After its initial development, the syrinx grows longer and destroys the center of the spinal cord. Eventually nerve fibers carrying messages from the brain to other parts of the body are damaged and often destroyed.

Initial symptoms include headache, muscle weakness, and loss of sensitivity to heat and cold, particularly within the hands. Over time, people with syringomyelia may experience loss of bladder and bowel control. As the syrinx grows, abnormal spine growth and bone deterioration occur, causing scoliosis and osteoporosis. In its advanced stage, syringomyelia can result in paralysis or quadriplegia.

Syringomyelia can be caused by abnormal formation of the spinal cord during pregnancy, or as the result of spinal trauma from accidents, tumors, or spina bifida.

Once diagnosed, many people undergo surgery to correct the formation of the spinal cyst(s). Drainage of the cyst may also be necessary to relieve pressure on the spinal cord.


• When an outgrowth of bone or tissue decreases the amount of space between the spinal bones, spinal stenosis results. This reduction of space can affect spinal-cord function and the nerve roots lying along the cord. When spinal stenosis occurs in the lower back, its effects include pain and feelings of numbness in the legs and feet. In the upper spinal region or neck area, it may cause paralysis.

The aging process can lead to changes in the growth and shape of the spinal cord. These changes may decrease the space between the cord’s bones and cause spinal stenosis.

Diagnosis is through a series of imaging tests including X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computed tomography (CT) scans. Physicians may also use blood tests to make a final diagnosis.

Physical therapy and medications are often prescribed for mild and moderate cases. If severe, surgery to relieve pressure on the affected nerves may be recommended.


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