When an individual suffers from a slow loss of function in their nerves due to a problem related to their spinal cord, often a condition known as myelopathy is occurring. Most often this loss of function can be traced to a traumatic injury to the spinal cord itself, an injury that ultimately leads to paralysis or seriously reduced sensations throughout the body.
Although injuries can certainly cause myelopathy to develop, in fact spinal stenosis—where the spinal canal in which the spinal cord is located slowly narrows—is one of the leading causes of the condition. As the spinal canal narrows the bones start to impact the nerves and nerve roots, and the ensuing pressure hampers the nerves ability to function normally. In other cases myelopathy develops due to a deterioration of one or more discs in the spine, which also affects mobility and impacts normal sensations.
The most obvious sign that myelopathy is developing in an individual is a pronounced weakness when they attempt to walk. The person may appear wobbly or unsteady on their feet, they may fall because of deficits with their balance and they may need to brace themselves more often when attempting to walk. Additionally, problems with the hands—specifically in the ability to grip things properly—combined with numbness in the upper extremities can be a symptom of myelopathy.
A diagnosis of myelopathy is arrived at through a combined approach of a review of the patient’s medical history; a physical examination that looks at how the arms and legs are functioning, how the patient walks and balances and whether there are any abnormalities in nerve fuction; and imaging studies such as x-rays, CT scans and MRIs, which can detect changes in the discs of the spine and facet joints. Additionally, tests to determine if the electrical impulses running through the spinal cord and adjacent nerves are being impacted may be ordered.
The first step to treating myelopathy is to relieve the pressure being exerted on the spine and, hence, the spinal cord and surrounding nerves and nerve roots. But this requires a complicated surgery and does not always achieve the relief of symptoms. For more mild cases of the condition standard anti-inflammatory medications may be recommended
Myelopathy is a serious condition and the effects on the body can be devastating, from the loss of the ability to walk or even move the arms and legs to problems with breathing and respiration.