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What is Myelopathy?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Myelopathy is the gradual loss of nerve function caused by disorders of the spine. It can be directly caused by spinal injury resulting in either reduced sensation or paralysis, although degenerative disease may also cause this condition, with varied degrees of loss in sensation and movement. Spinal cord injuries that result in this problem are classed as complete or incomplete, since the cord does not have to be severed to reduce nerve function.

Complete myelopathy describes a spinal injury that results in no sensation below the origin of the spinal injury. For example, a person with a spinal injury slightly above the waist would not feel his or her legs, could not walk, would have loss of bladder control and bowel function, and would not have sexual function. This is termed complete because nothing below the injury works. In incomplete myelopathy as a result of spinal injury, considering the same type of injury as above helps explain the distinction. A person in this case might have bladder, bowel, and sexual function, but still not be able to walk. In this type of injury, some functions below the spinal injury may be unaffected or only partially affected.

The most serious complete cases are devastating. Injury to the upper areas of the spinal cord can result in the loss of nerve function that affects virtually all systems, causing quadriplegia. This could leave a person unable to walk, use his arms, or control functions like breathing without help from a ventilator.

A common cause of myelopathy that is not related to surgical injury is cervical stenosis. When people age, there is a gradual compression and narrowing of the spine, which can result in the spine pinching the surrounding nerves. Initial signs can include heaviness in the legs, pain in the arms, and gradual loss of fine motor skills. A medical professional evaluating a patient may notice increased muscular structure in the legs and poor coordination when a person walks. Other tests will examine reflexes, which may be abnormal.

Treatment for cervical stenosis is surgery to decompress the spine. The goal of such surgery is to slow down or stop the stenosis from progressing. Unfortunately, this surgery may not provide any relief, and spine surgery is typically complicated. In the elderly, the risks may far outweigh the benefits. If pain is present, the best course is sometimes pain management.

Many experts feel that there is an urgent need for the medical community to address the problems caused by spinal injury or progressive disease. It remains a wish of almost all people that research continues in this field until we can fix the devastation caused by damage to the spine.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon965564 — On Aug 13, 2014

My father met with an accident and doctors have diagnosed him with cervical disorder with myelopathy. He is abroad. It's been more than a month since he had the accident. There are reasons he's not taking his medication there. It may affect him. Could anyone please help me to understand this?

By anon166185 — On Apr 07, 2011

I am now 55 years old. I have familial spastic myelopathy and have know about it since I was twenty one. When I see doctors they don't have much to say other than drugs that just make you worse and less functional. What they do think is because of my high demand physical job that I have kept more control of my legs than anyone else in my family.

I have many cousins,aunts and uncles with this problem. The only thing I think we can do is force ourselves to move and keep the neural pathways from shutting down.

By anon124007 — On Nov 04, 2010

I just had to put my beloved pet to sleep because of myelopathy. It was disheartening to see him progressively lose the use of his hind legs. I have not heard of anything that could be done for an animal with this condition, unless of course the use of a cart is something you choose.

By anon83239 — On May 10, 2010

To anon73305: Have you, by chance, ever used (or currently use) a denture adhesive? If so, please post a comment to me because I think I can possibly shed some light on your condition.

*Please note that I am not a medical professional. I am a 46 year old woman who has the exact same medical issues that you are experiencing.

I wish you, and all, well!

By anon73305 — On Mar 26, 2010

Two years ago, I was diagnosed with a spinal AV fistula in T10/T11. The radiologist's report did not pick up on it. The report stated that I showed degenerative disc disease, arthritis, degenerated facet joints, etc., however, no mention of the fistula.

After the neurosurgeon reviewed my MRI and medical history, as well as my symptoms, he was sure of the AV fistula. My symptoms were numbness in toes and feet, weakness in left leg, trouble walking, falling easily, reduced sensation in hips and legs, bladder and bowel problems.

He performed an angiogram to ensure his diagnosis was correct. It was and surgery was performed the next day. Everything was successful. After about a year of physical therapy, I was 90 percent improved.

However, in January of last year (2009) I was diagnosed with vulvar cancer, and I had to have eight chemo and 38 radiation treatments. During the treatments, I started having recurring issues. I believe the radiation treatments caused a major increase in my lower lumbar region.

Now, I have reduced sensation in both legs, bladder incontinence, trouble walking or going up stairs, as well as needing help to get out of a chair.

My neurologist says my condition in my lower back would not cause this. He says it is due to my upper surgery. How can this be? I was getting better, now I am in a worse condition than ever. The cancer is gone, and that's a real blessing, but I would like to know how to get help. My neurologist says there is nothing he can do.

By anon38628 — On Jul 27, 2009

The information is excellent in this article. However, in describing the information about Christopher Reeve this is an obvious error. As a healthcare professional (Registered Respiratory Therapist) I can tell you that a mechanical ventilator is used when someone cannot breathe on their own, not a respirator, which is a device to protect someone from fumes, debris, viruses and bacteria.

By rfranco5 — On May 10, 2009

I was diagnosed with spinal av fistula in mar. It has now been 2 months since my embolization and I am recovering as we speak. I was paralyzed from the waist down for two days and am slowly regaining the use of my legs and functions. I wrote my story on my condition from start to the present.

By somerset — On Feb 26, 2008

Even though the damage to the spinal cord can not be reversed at this point, there has been a lot of progress in the last fifty years. Where in the past the injury might have been fatal, these days many people continue to live productive lives within the limits of their disability.

Hopefully soon, there will be more progress, and cure, where with some medication the injured nerves would regenerate. It is probably just a matter of time.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
Learn more
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