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 may 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 isn't causing any problems, monitoring the condition may be all that's necessary. But if you're bothered by symptoms, you may 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 may begin between ages 25 and 40.
In some cases, coughing or straining may trigger symptoms of syringomyelia, although neither causes syringomyelia.
The following early signs and symptoms of syringomyelia may affect the back of your neck, shoulders, arms and hands first:
- Muscle weakness and wasting (atrophy)
- Loss of reflexes
- Loss of sensitivity to pain and temperature
Other signs and symptoms of syringomyelia may include:
- Stiffness in your back, shoulders, arms and legs
- Pain in your neck, arms and back
- Bowel and bladder function problems
- Muscle weakness and spasms in your legs
- Spinal curvature (scoliosis)
When to see a doctor
If you have any of the signs or symptoms associated with syringomyelia, see your doctor. Because many signs and symptoms of syringomyelia can be associated with other disorders, a thorough medical evaluation is important for accurate diagnosis.
If you've experienced a spinal cord injury, watch carefully for signs and symptoms of syringomyelia. Many months to several years may pass after an injury before syringomyelia develops. If you have symptoms, when you go for an evaluation make sure your doctor knows you had a spinal cord injury.
It's unclear exactly 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 may 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 may cause symptoms months or even years after the initial injury
In some people, syringomyelia can become a progressive disorder and lead to serious complications. In others, there may be no associated symptoms, and no intervention is necessary.
Complications that may occur as a syrinx enlarges or if it damages nerves within your spinal cord include:
- Scoliosis — an abnormal curve of your spine
- Chronic pain — damage to the spinal cord can cause severe, chronic pain
- Motor difficulties — weakness and stiffness in your leg muscles can eventually affect your gait