Syringomyelia (sih-ring-go-my-E-lee-uh) is the development of a fluid-filled cyst (syrinx) within your spinal cord. Over time, the cyst can enlarge, damaging your spinal cord and causing pain, weakness and stiffness, among other symptoms.
Syringomyelia has several possible causes, though the majority of cases are associated with a condition in which brain tissue protrudes into your spinal canal (Chiari malformation).
Other causes of syringomyelia include spinal cord tumors, spinal cord injuries and damage caused by inflammation around your spinal cord.
If syringomyelia doesn't cause problems, monitoring the condition might be all that's necessary. But if you're bothered by symptoms, you might need surgery.
Syringomyelia symptoms usually develop slowly over time. If your syringomyelia is caused by protrusion of brain tissue into your spinal canal (Chiari malformation), symptoms generally begin between ages 25 and 40.
In some cases, coughing or straining can trigger symptoms of syringomyelia, although neither causes syringomyelia.
Signs and symptoms of syringomyelia, which might affect your back, shoulders, arms or legs, can include:
- Muscle weakness and wasting (atrophy)
- Loss of reflexes
- Loss of sensitivity to pain and temperature
- Stiffness in your back, shoulders, arms and legs
- Pain in your neck, arms and back
- Spinal curvature (scoliosis)
When to see a doctor
If you have any of the signs or symptoms associated with syringomyelia, see your doctor.
If you've had a spinal cord injury, watch for signs and symptoms of syringomyelia. Months to years can pass after an injury before syringomyelia develops. Make sure your doctor knows you had a spinal cord injury.
It's unclear how and why syringomyelia happens. When it develops, cerebrospinal fluid — the fluid that surrounds, cushions and protects your brain and spinal cord — collects within the spinal cord itself, forming a fluid-filled cyst (syrinx).
Several conditions and diseases can lead to syringomyelia, including:
- Chiari malformation, a condition in which brain tissue protrudes into your spinal canal
- Meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes surrounding your brain and spinal cord
- Spinal cord tumor, which can interfere with the normal circulation of cerebrospinal fluid
- Conditions present at birth, such as a tethered spinal cord, a condition caused when tissue attached to your spinal cord limits its movement
- Spinal cord injury, which can cause symptoms months or years later
In some people, syringomyelia can progress and lead to serious complications. Others have no symptoms.
Possible complications as a syrinx enlarges or if it damages nerves within your spinal cord include:
- An abnormal curve of your spine (scoliosis)
- Chronic pain as a result of spinal cord damage to the spinal cord
- Motor difficulties, such as weakness and stiffness in your leg muscles that can affect your walking