The exact reason for transverse myelitis is not known. In some cases, no cause can be found for transverse myelitis. However, there are a number of conditions that appear to cause the disorder, including:

  • Viral and other infections of the respiratory tract or the gastrointestinal tract have been implicated in transverse myelitis. In most cases, the inflammatory disorder appears after recovery from the viral infection.

    Viruses that can infect the spinal cord directly are herpes viruses, including the one that causes shingles and chickenpox (zoster) and West Nile virus. Other viruses may trigger an autoimmune reaction without directly infecting the spinal cord.

    Rarely, parasites may infect the spinal cord, and certain bacteria such as Lyme disease can cause a painful inflammation of nerve roots of the spinal cord.

  • Multiple sclerosis is a disorder in which the immune system destroys myelin surrounding nerves in your spinal cord and brain. Transverse myelitis can be the first sign of multiple sclerosis or represent a relapse. Transverse myelitis as a sign of multiple sclerosis usually manifests on only one side of your body.
  • Neuromyelitis optica (Devic's disease) is a condition that causes inflammation and loss of myelin around the spinal cord and the nerve in your eye that transmits information to your brain. Transverse myelitis associated with neuromyelitis optica usually affects both sides of your body.

    You may experience symptoms of damage to myelin of the optic nerve, including pain in the eye with movement and temporary vision loss, at the same time or other times as transverse myelitis symptoms. However, some people with neuromyelitis optica don't experience eye-related problems and might have only recurrent episodes of transverse myelitis.

  • Autoimmune disorders affecting other body systems likely contribute to transverse myelitis in some people. These disorders include lupus, which can affect multiple body systems, and Sjogren's syndrome, which causes severe dryness of the mouth and eyes, as well as other symptoms.

    Transverse myelitis associated with an autoimmune disorder may indicate coexisting neuromyelitis optica, which occurs more frequently in people with other autoimmune diseases than it does in people who don't have autoimmune disease.

  • Vaccinations for infectious diseases — including hepatitis B, measles-mumps-rubella, and diphtheria-tetanus vaccines — have occasionally been implicated as a possible trigger.
Feb. 13, 2014

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