What is Syringomyelia?

C. Martin

Syringomyelia is a disease in which fluid-filled cavities form in the spinal cord. These cavities, or cysts, are full of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), and can be detected with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanning. Syringomyelia symptoms may include back pain, headaches, loss of sensation in the limbs, and temporary or even permanent paralysis. In humans, this is a rare disease, typically occurring in only a fraction of a percent of the population.

Post-traumatic syringomyelia may result from physical trauma, such as whiplash.
Post-traumatic syringomyelia may result from physical trauma, such as whiplash.

There are two main causes of this disease. It can be either due to an existing abnormality present in the brain of the patient, or else the disease may result from a trauma of some kind, either mechanical, or due to infection. In the case of a brain abnormality, this typically takes the form of a Chiari malformation, where a portion of the brain protrudes into the spinal canal. When it occurs due to a Chiari malformation, syringomyelia is sometimes accompanied by hydrocephalus, a condition in which excess cerebrospinal fluid in the skull causes pressure on the brain. The underlying cause of this form of the disease may have a hereditary element, as it is sometimes observed running in families.

Syringomyelia may be detected with an MRI scan.
Syringomyelia may be detected with an MRI scan.

Post-traumatic syringomyelia typically results from an injury or infection of the spine. This could be, for example, due to physical trauma such as whiplash from an automobile accident, damage resulting from a spinal tumor, or as a complication of a meningitis infection. In this form of the disease, a cyst may develop in the damaged or infected area of the spinal cord, and may cause back pain and other symptoms either immediately following injury, or as a later development months or even years after the event. Cervical syringomyelia is a variation of this form, which may occur after injury to the thorax.

Post-traumatic syringomyelia typically results from an injury or infection of the spine.
Post-traumatic syringomyelia typically results from an injury or infection of the spine.

Syringomyelia treatment depends on the severity of the disease, and on a physician’s assessment of how rapidly it is progressing. In some cases, the cysts remain small and stable for many years, and conservative treatment such as pain management is all that is required. In other cases, the progression of the disease may be extremely rapid and disabling. Syringomyelia surgery is typically performed by a neurosurgeon. The surgery is usually performed to correct the underlying condition that caused the cyst to occur, and in some cases it is also necessary to drain the fluid from the cyst before healing can take place.

Syringomyelia symptoms include back pain.
Syringomyelia symptoms include back pain.
If surgery is necessary to treat syringomyelia, it will be performed by a neurosurgeon.
If surgery is necessary to treat syringomyelia, it will be performed by a neurosurgeon.
In some cases, paralysis caused by syringomyelia may be only temporary.
In some cases, paralysis caused by syringomyelia may be only temporary.

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