Transverse myelitis is a neurological disorder caused by inflammation across both sides of one level, or segment, of the spinal cord.
The term myelitis refers to inflammation of the spinal cord; transverse simply describes the position of the inflammation, that is, across the width of the spinal cord. Attacks of inflammation can damage or destroy myelin, the fatty insulating substance that covers nerve cell fibers. This damage causes nervous system scars that interrupt communications between the nerves in the spinal cord and the rest of the body.
Symptoms of transverse myelitis include a loss of spinal cord function over several hours to several weeks. What usually begins as a sudden onset of lower back pain, muscle weakness, or abnormal sensations in the toes and feet can rapidly progress to more severe symptoms, including paralysis, urinary retention, and loss of bowel control. Although some patients recover from transverse myelitis with minor or no residual problems, others suffer permanent impairments that affect their ability to perform ordinary tasks of daily living. Most patients will have only one episode of transverse myelitis; a small percentage may have a recurrence.
The segment of the spinal cord at which the damage occurs determines which parts of the body are affected. Nerves in the cervical (neck) region control signals to the neck, arms, hands, and muscles of breathing (the diaphragm). Nerves in the thoracic (upper back) region relay signals to the torso and some parts of the arms. Nerves at the lumbar (mid-back) level control signals to the hips and legs. Finally, sacral nerves, located within the lowest segment of the spinal cord, relay signals to the groin, toes, and some parts of the legs. Damage at one segment will affect function at that segment and segments below it. In patients with transverse myelitis, demyelination usually occurs at the thoracic level, causing problems with leg movement and bowel and bladder control, which require signals from the lower segments of the spinal cord.