Transverse myelitis may be either acute (developing over hours to several days) or subacute (developing over 1 to 2 weeks). Initial symptoms usually include localized lower back pain, sudden paresthesias (abnormal sensations such as burning, tickling, pricking, or tingling) in the legs, sensory loss, and paraparesis (partial paralysis of the legs). Paraparesis often progresses to paraplegia (paralysis of the legs and lower part of the trunk). Urinary bladder and bowel dysfunction is common. Many patients also report experiencing muscle spasms, a general feeling of discomfort, headache, fever, and loss of appetite. Depending on which segment of the spinal cord is involved, some patients may experience respiratory problems as well.
From this wide array of symptoms, four classic features of transverse myelitis emerge: (1) weakness of the legs and arms, (2) pain, (3) sensory alteration, and (4) bowel and bladder dysfunction. Most patients will experience weakness of varying degrees in their legs; some also experience it in their arms. Initially, people with transverse myelitis may notice that they are stumbling or dragging one foot or that their legs seem heavier than normal. Coordination of hand and arm movements, as well as arm and hand strength may also be compromised. Progression of the disease over several weeks often leads to full paralysis of the legs, requiring the patient to use a wheelchair.
Pain is the primary presenting symptom of transverse myelitis in approximately one-third to one-half of all patients. The pain may be localized in the lower back or may consist of sharp, shooting sensations that radiate down the legs or arms or around the torso.
Patients who experience sensory disturbances often use terms such as numbness, tingling, coldness, or burning to describe their symptoms. Up to 80 percent of those with transverse myelitis report areas of heightened sensitivity to touch, such that clothing or a light touch with a finger causes significant discomfort or pain (a condition called allodynia). Many also experience heightened sensitivity to changes in temperature or to extreme heat or cold.
Bladder and bowel problems may involve increased frequency of the urge to urinate or have bowel movements, incontinence, difficulty voiding, the sensation of incomplete evacuation, and constipation. Over the course of the disease, the majority of people with transverse myelitis will experience one or several of these symptoms.