Syringomyelia: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Life Expectancy
Tests & Procedures

Syringomyelia: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Life Expectancy

Syringomyelia is a chronic disorder characterized by the development of a fluid-filled cyst, known as a syrinx, within the spinal cord. This condition can lead to various neurological symptoms and complications, significantly impacting a patient’s quality of life.

Understanding Syringomyelia

Syringomyelia occurs when cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) accumulates within the spinal cord, forming a syrinx. As the syrinx enlarges, it can damage the spinal cord and disrupt the transmission of nerve signals. The progression of the condition can vary widely among patients, with some experiencing a rapid onset of symptoms, while others may have a slow and gradual development of symptoms over many years.

Symptoms of Syringomyelia

The symptoms of syringomyelia depend on the size and location of the syrinx within the spinal cord. Common symptoms include:

  1. Pain: Chronic pain, especially in the neck, shoulders, arms, and back, is a common symptom. The pain can range from mild discomfort to severe and debilitating.
  2. Weakness: Muscle weakness and atrophy, particularly in the hands and arms, can occur as the syrinx expands and damages nerve fibers.
  3. Loss of Sensation: Patients may experience a loss of sensation, particularly an inability to feel hot and cold temperatures. This can increase the risk of burns and injuries.
  4. Stiffness: Stiffness and spasticity in the legs can develop, leading to difficulty walking and maintaining balance.
  5. Headaches: Severe headaches, often triggered by activities that increase pressure within the spinal cord, such as coughing, sneezing, or straining, are common.
  6. Scoliosis: In some cases, syringomyelia can lead to an abnormal curvature of the spine (scoliosis), particularly in younger patients.
  7. Bladder and Bowel Dysfunction: Problems with bladder and bowel control can occur if the syrinx affects the nerves that control these functions.
  8. Numbness and Tingling: A tingling or “pins and needles” sensation in the arms, hands, legs, or feet may be present.

Causes of Syringomyelia

Syringomyelia can be classified into two main types based on its underlying cause: congenital and acquired.

Congenital Syringomyelia

This type is often associated with developmental abnormalities of the brain and spinal cord. The most common congenital cause is Chiari malformation, a condition where the lower part of the brain extends into the spinal canal. Other congenital causes include:

  • Spinal Dysraphism: A group of conditions where the spine and spinal cord do not form properly during fetal development.
  • Tethered Cord Syndrome: A condition where the spinal cord is abnormally attached within the spinal column, restricting its movement.

Acquired Syringomyelia

Acquired syringomyelia occurs due to injury or disease affecting the spinal cord. Common causes include:

  • Spinal Cord Trauma: Injuries to the spinal cord can lead to the formation of a syrinx. These injuries can be due to accidents, falls, or surgical procedures.
  • Spinal Cord Tumors: Tumors within or near the spinal cord can obstruct the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), leading to the development of a syrinx.
  • Meningitis: Inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meninges) can disrupt CSF flow and cause syringomyelia.
  • Arachnoiditis: Inflammation of the arachnoid membrane, one of the layers of the meninges, can lead to scarring and syrinx formation.
  • Post-Surgical Complications: Syringomyelia can develop as a complication of spinal surgeries.

Diagnosis of Syringomyelia

Diagnosing syringomyelia involves a combination of clinical evaluation, imaging studies, and sometimes additional tests:

  1. Medical History and Physical Examination: A thorough medical history and physical examination are the first steps in diagnosing syringomyelia. The healthcare provider will assess the patient’s symptoms, medical history, and perform a neurological examination to evaluate muscle strength, sensation, and reflexes.
  2. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): MRI is the gold standard for diagnosing syringomyelia. It provides detailed images of the spinal cord, revealing the presence, size, and location of a syrinx. MRI can also detect associated conditions such as Chiari malformation or spinal cord tumors.
  3. Computed Tomography (CT) Scan: While less commonly used than MRI, a CT scan can provide additional information about bone abnormalities or the presence of tumors.
  4. Myelography: This imaging technique involves injecting a contrast dye into the spinal canal to enhance the visibility of the spinal cord and surrounding structures on X-ray or CT images.

Treatment of Syringomyelia

The treatment of syringomyelia depends on the severity of symptoms, the size and location of the syrinx, and the underlying cause. Treatment options include:

Conservative Management

For patients with mild or asymptomatic syringomyelia, conservative management may be appropriate. This approach includes:

  • Monitoring: Regular follow-up appointments with periodic MRI scans to monitor the size and progression of the syrinx.
  • Pain Management: Medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), opioids, or anticonvulsants can help manage pain.
  • Physical Therapy: Physical therapy can improve muscle strength, flexibility, and coordination, helping patients maintain function and mobility.

Surgical Treatment

Surgery is often necessary for patients with severe symptoms or progressive syringomyelia. Surgical options include:

  • Posterior Fossa Decompression: For syringomyelia associated with Chiari malformation, this surgery involves removing a small portion of the skull and sometimes part of the upper spine to relieve pressure and restore normal CSF flow.
  • Shunting: A shunt is a tube that is surgically inserted to drain the fluid from the syrinx to another part of the body, such as the abdomen, where it can be absorbed.
  • Laminectomy: This procedure involves removing a portion of the vertebrae to create more space for the spinal cord and relieve pressure.
  • Tumor Removal: If a spinal cord tumor is causing the syrinx, surgical removal of the tumor may be necessary.

Life Expectancy

The impact of syringomyelia on life expectancy varies widely based on the severity of the condition, the presence of associated disorders, and the effectiveness of treatment. With appropriate management, many individuals with syringomyelia can live relatively normal lives, although they may need to cope with chronic symptoms and periodic medical intervention.

Factors Influencing Life Expectancy

  1. Severity and Progression: The size and growth rate of the syrinx can influence outcomes. Larger syrinxes that expand rapidly may cause more severe neurological damage.
  2. Associated Conditions: Conditions such as Chiari malformation or spinal cord tumors can complicate syringomyelia and affect prognosis.
  3. Access to Medical Care: Timely diagnosis and access to surgical and non-surgical treatments are crucial for managing symptoms and preventing complications.
  4. Response to Treatment: Some patients respond well to surgical interventions, while others may continue to experience symptoms despite treatment.

Management of Underlying Conditions

Treating the underlying cause of syringomyelia is crucial for preventing recurrence and managing symptoms. This may involve:

  • Antibiotics or Antiviral Medications: For syringomyelia caused by infections such as meningitis.
  • Anti-inflammatory Medications: For conditions like arachnoiditis.

Living with Syringomyelia

Living with syringomyelia can be challenging, but several strategies can help manage symptoms and improve quality of life:

  • Regular Medical Care: Ongoing care from a neurologist or neurosurgeon is essential for monitoring the condition and managing symptoms.
  • Pain Management: Working with a pain specialist to develop a comprehensive pain management plan can help improve daily functioning.
  • Support Groups: Joining support groups can provide emotional support and practical advice from others living with syringomyelia.
  • Adaptive Devices: Using assistive devices such as braces, walkers, or wheelchairs can help maintain mobility and independence.

Syringomyelia is a complex condition that can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment are crucial for managing symptoms and preventing complications.