Syringomyelia is a rare disorder in which a cyst forms within
your spinal cord. As this fluid-filled cyst, or syrinx, expands and lengthens
over time, it compresses and damages part of your spinal cord from its center
Damage to the spinal cord caused by a syrinx can cause symptoms
like progressive pain, stiffness, and weakness in the:
People with the disorder might lose the ability to feel cold and
pain normally. Some people with this disorder won’t have any symptoms and won’t
need treatment. For others, syringomyelia will cause symptoms and complications
that worsen as the syrinx expands.
Treatment aims to relieve the pressure on your spinal cord. The
treatment your doctor suggests for you will depend on the cause of your
syringomyelia. Follow-up care after surgery is important because syringomyelia
Most cases of syringomyelia are caused by a malformation of the
brain known as a Chiari type 1 malformation (CM1). A CM1 occurs where the brain
joins the spinal cord. In this malformation, the brainstem lies lower than
normal. Located at the back of the brainstem is the cerebellum. Often the bases
of each lobe of the cerebellum, or the cerebellar tonsils, protrude from the
skull and into the spinal canal.
Syringomyelia can develop as a complication of:
- a tumor
Arachnoiditis is a progressive inflammatory disorder that affects
the arachnoid or middle membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. A
primary arachnoid cyst is present at birth, but it may take years for symptoms
Are the Symptoms of Syringomyelia?
The pressure the syrinx puts on the spinal cord and the damage
that follows causes the symptoms of this disorder. The symptoms may include:
- a progressive weakness and pain in the back,
shoulders, arms, or legs
- an inability to feel hot or cold
- a loss of pain sensation
- difficulty walking
- bowel and bladder function problems
- facial pain and numbness
- curvature of the spine, or scoliosis
You should visit your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.
If you have had a spinal injury, it’s important to watch for these symptoms. It
may take months or even years after your injury for syringomyelia to develop.
Is Syringomyelia Diagnosed?
If you doctor suspects you have syringomyelia, you may be referred
to a neurologist. To diagnose your condition, your neurologist will first take
your complete medical history. A complete physical examination will also be
performed. Be prepared to tell your neurologist about your symptoms and how
long you’ve had them.
If your neurologist thinks you may have syringomyelia, they’ll
order an MRI to look for a syrinx in your spinal cord. MRI is the most reliable
diagnostic tool for syringomyelia and it’s considered the gold standard for
diagnosing the condition.
Is Syringomyelia Treated?
Treatment depends on the progression of the disorder and whether
you’re experiencing symptoms that disrupt your life. If you have no symptoms or
mild symptoms, you won’t need treatment. Your neurologist will monitor the
progression of the disorder.
If your symptoms are negatively affecting your life, your
neurologist will recommend surgery. The goal of surgery is to relieve the
pressure on your spinal cord. The type of surgery will depend on the cause of
If you have a CM1, your surgeon may suggest surgery to expand the
base of your skull and the covering of your brain. This will take pressure off
your spinal cord and your brain. The normal flow of cerebrospinal fluid should
be restored. For most people, this surgery resolves their syringomyelia.
In some cases, your surgeon will use a small, flexible tube
called a shunt to drain the syrinx. They’ll place the shunt in the syrinx to
drain the excess fluid. Sometimes, the surgeon can completely drain the syrinx
during surgery. If that isn’t possible, the shunt will remain in place after
If you have a tumor or bony growth that’s causing syringomyelia,
removal of the growth may resolve the syringomyelia.
After surgery, you may be prescribed a course of antibiotics to
prevent complications from infection. Physical therapy can help strengthen
muscles in limbs that have progressive weakness.
Is the Outlook for People with Syringomyelia?
The outlook of those who undergo treatment and have a successful
surgery varies. Damage to the spinal cord may be severe enough to cause
permanent neurological issues. Some people may struggle with walking or have
permanent weakness in their limbs. The hope is that these conditions will
slowly disappear with physical therapy and time.
It’s important to attend follow-up appointments with your doctor.
You’ll need periodic MRIs because syringomyelia can reoccur.