Transverse Myelitis

Reviewed and revised 16 January 2014


  • myelitis is a rare inflammatory condition of spinal cord characterised by pyramidal (motor), sensory, and/or autonomic dysfunction to varying degrees
  • deficits are not always bilateral and do not necessarily affect all long tracts within the cord
  • the term “transverse” originally referred to the clinical finding of a band-like horizontal area of altered sensation usually at the dermatomal level of the lesion within the cord, more recently it is used simply describes the position of the inflammation, that is, across the width of the spinal cord
  • affects any age, according to underlying cause


Most common

  • multiple sclerosis
  • neuromyelitis optica (NMO) aka Devic syndrome (autoantibodies against aequaporin-4)
  • post infections or vaccinations
  • Idiopathic in about 30%

Other causes

  • Demyelinating, e.g. MS, NMO, Acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis (ADEM)
  • viral infection e.g. CMV, HZV, HIV, enterovirus, HSV
  • parasitic infection e.g. schistosomiasis
  • bacterial infection e.g. cat scratch disease, Tb
  • fungal infection e.g. cryptococcus
  • autoimmune/ inflammatory e.g. SLE, sarcoidosis
  • paraneoplastic autoantibodies

Click here for a detailed list


Isolated spinal cord dysfunction with no evidence of a compressive lesion:

  • time course
    • onset over hours to days
    • progression over days to weeks
  • segmental spinal cord dysfunction, commonly thoracic
    • paresthesiae ascending from the feet with or without back pain at or near the level of the myelitis
    • weakness that preferentially affects the flexors of the legs and the extensors of the arms (pyramidal distribution of weakness)
    • sphincter dysfunction
    • autonomic dysfunction is common: bowel and bladder dysfunction, temperature dysregulation, or labile blood pressure
    • can have total motor and sensory loss below the level
  • spinal shock (implies poor prognosis)

Click here for diagnostic criteria

  • look for evidence of underlying cause (e.g. SLE)


Must rule out:

  • Extrinsic compression of the cord
  • neoplastic disease
  • vascular spinal disease
  • radiation-induced changes of the cord


  • MRI spine
    — gadolinium enhancement of the cord (may be absent)
    — rule out compressive or reversible lesion
    —  always image the level of the clinical signs and symptoms and the spinal cord superior to that level (lesions often manifest as the level below)
  • MRI brain
    — should be normal unless MS or coexistent pathology
  • CSF analysis
    — pleocytosis and/or an elevated IgG index (may be absent)
    — viral PCR
    — cultures
  • Septic screen
    — rule out infection, e.g. meningoencephalitis
  • Autoimmune screen



  • if level high may need intubation

Specific therapy

  • early neurologist and neurosurgical opinion
  • high dose steroids (standard of care, not based on RCTs)
    • IV methylprednisolone
  • consider plasmapheresis
    — typical dosing is 1.5 plasma volumes in five treatments over 10 days
    — best when initiated within the first two weeks after the onset of symptoms (clinical improvement in up to 43% of patients up to 2 months)
  • case reports of:
    —  IV immunoglobulin (ADEM)
    — cyclophosphamide (idiopathic transverse myelitis and SLE)
    — rituximab (NMO)
    — azathioprine (NMO)

Supportive care and monitoring

  • including IDC and VTE prophylaxis


Overall prognosis

  • one-third of patients recover with little to no lasting effects
  • one-third retain a moderate degree of residual disability
  • one third remain severely disabled

Poor prognostic indicators

  • rapid progression of symptoms
  • back pain
  • spinal shock
  • absent central conduction on somatosensory evoked potential testing

Associated with recovery

  • early plasmapheresis

Progression and risk of relapse also depends on the underlying cause

References and Links

Journal articles

  • West TW. Transverse myelitis–a review of the presentation, diagnosis, and initial management. Discov Med. 2013 Oct;16(88):167-77. PMID: 24099672.

FOAM and web resources

CCC 700 6

Critical Care


Chris is an Intensivist and ECMO specialist at the Alfred ICU in Melbourne. He is also a Clinical Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University. He is a co-founder of the Australia and New Zealand Clinician Educator Network (ANZCEN) and is the Lead for the ANZCEN Clinician Educator Incubator programme. He is on the Board of Directors for the Intensive Care Foundation and is a First Part Examiner for the College of Intensive Care Medicine. He is an internationally recognised Clinician Educator with a passion for helping clinicians learn and for improving the clinical performance of individuals and collectives.

After finishing his medical degree at the University of Auckland, he continued post-graduate training in New Zealand as well as Australia’s Northern Territory, Perth and Melbourne. He has completed fellowship training in both intensive care medicine and emergency medicine, as well as post-graduate training in biochemistry, clinical toxicology, clinical epidemiology, and health professional education.

He is actively involved in in using translational simulation to improve patient care and the design of processes and systems at Alfred Health. He coordinates the Alfred ICU’s education and simulation programmes and runs the unit’s education website, INTENSIVE.  He created the ‘Critically Ill Airway’ course and teaches on numerous courses around the world. He is one of the founders of the FOAM movement (Free Open-Access Medical education) and is co-creator of litfl.com, the RAGE podcast, the Resuscitology course, and the SMACC conference.

His one great achievement is being the father of three amazing children.

On Twitter, he is @precordialthump.

| INTENSIVE | RAGE | Resuscitology | SMACC

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