Transverse myelitis is a neurological disorder caused by inflammation across both sides of one level, or segment, of the spinal cord. The segment of the spinal cord at which the damage occurs determines which parts of the body are affected. Damage at one segment will affect function at that segment and segments below it. In people with transverse myelitis, inflammation usually occurs at the thoracic (upper back) level, causing problems with leg movement and bowel and bladder control, which require signals from the lower segments of the spinal cord. 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.

No effective cure currently exists for people with transverse myelitis. Physicians often prescribe corticosteroid therapy during the first few weeks of illness to decrease inflammation. Following initial therapy, the most critical part of the treatment for this disorder consists of keeping the patient’s body functioning while hoping for either complete or partial spontaneous recovery of the nervous system. If an individual begins to recover limb control, physical therapy begins to help improve muscle strength, coordination, and range of motion.

Recovery from transverse myelitis usually begins within 2 to 12 weeks of the onset of symptoms and may continue for up to 2 years. However, if there is no improvement within the first 3 to 6 months, significant recovery is unlikely. About one-third of people affected with transverse myelitis experience good or full recovery from their symptoms. Another one-third show only fair recovery and are left with significant deficits. The remaining one-third show no recovery at all, with marked dependence on others for basic functions of daily living.

Prepared by the National Institutes of Health