What is Myelomalacia and the Possible Causes?

Published on: August 15, 2021 (Last modified on: October 9, 2023)
spinal cord

The spinal cord is the core pathway of the nervous system from the brain to the rest of the body. Any damage or disease that impacts the spinal cord can have a devastating effect on movement, organ function and a variety of senses throughout the body. Myelomalacia is a softening of the spinal cord – it is not a disease, but it can be caused by a variety of injuries and conditions. Read on to learn more about what is myelomalacia, as well as the symptoms, causes and prognosis of this spinal cord condition.

What is myelomalacia? This is a fairly rare condition where the spinal cord does not receive enough blood or there is hemorrhaging in the spine that causes it to soften. Myelomalacia is a serious spinal cord condition that can impact the limbs and possibly organs, and in rare cases be deadly. A variety of injuries and conditions can contribute to myelomalacia, which can come on suddenly or slowly, depending on the cause. Knowing the symptoms and possible causes can alert you to this condition to seek treatment as soon as possible.

Myelomalacia Symptoms

The symptoms of myelomalacia show indications of injury to the spinal cord. While neck and back pain are common symptoms for a wide variety of spine and musculoskeletal conditions, there are other signs of spinal cord dysfunction beyond pain. Some of the symptoms of myelomalacia include:

  • Numbness in legs or arms
  • Paralysis in limbs
  • Shocking sensation when lifting or bending
  • Pain along the spine
  • Jerking of the limbs
  • Reduced motor function in hands, legs
  • Changes in mood – anxiety, depression
  • Fatigue
  • Respiratory problems – this can become deadly

The symptoms of myelomalacia depend on what parts of the spinal cord are most affected. It is common for pain and jerking sensations to occur, followed by worsening motor functions – typing or writing can become difficult, or walking may be affected. Myelomalacia usually occurs as a secondary condition – knowing the possible causes can make it easier to recognize the possible signs of this serious spinal cord disorder. Often a spinal disc or vertebrae has been compromised and is causing the blood or volume loss in the spine.

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Causes of Myelomalacia

Myelomalacia occurs when hemorrhaging or blood loss occurs in the spinal cord, resulting in the spinal cord softening. The most common factor related to myelomalacia is osteoporosis – when the bones in the spine are weak, they are more likely to be injured and cause a hemorrhage. Older people with weakened bones are more susceptible to myelomalacia, but this condition can occur in anyone. Some of the possible causes include:

  • Vehicle accidents
  • Sports spine, neck or back injuries
  • Degenerative disease in the spine
  • Any traumatic injury to the spine

Myelomalacia occurs when there is either not enough blood supply to the spine due to a blockage from spine damage, or when there is excessive bleeding. Myelomalacia symptoms can occur suddenly after a spine injury, or the symptoms may slowly begin as degenerative spine damage becomes worse. If allowed to progress, myelomalacia can severely impact breathing and can be fatal.

Myelomalacia Treatment

If you have signs or myelomalacia symptoms after a spine injury or in combination with osteoporosis or other spine conditions, you should seek medical attention. If myelomalacia is diagnosed or suspected by your doctor, you will be referred to a spine specialist for treatment. Since this condition is rare and involves the delicate spinal cord and nervous system, you will want a specialist involved in treatment of your case.

Treatment for myelomalacia usually involves surgery. While it is possible that mild conditions could be treated with steroid injections to relieve inflammation causing the volume loss in the spine, most cases require a permanent alteration. Removing an affected spinal disc or vertebrae that is causing the blood loss or hemorrhage are common treatments. A spinal surgeon can perform surgery to restore a healthier spinal space and replace the bone or disc with an implant.
A model of a spine and spine x-rays on the desk of a physician.

While surgery can restore normal blood flow in the spine, if nerve damage occurred from myelomalacia, this cannot be undone. This is why it is important to be aware of the signs of spinal cord damage and seek medical attention as quickly as possible. Once nerves are damaged, there can be long-term disability. However, treatment for myelomalacia can stop any further damage and relieve symptoms caused by the softening of the spinal cord.

Myelomalacia can be a deadly spinal cord condition that can cause permanent nervous system damage or death. If you have any of the signs of myelomalacia, especially after a back or neck injury or in combination with a spinal disorder, seek medical attention immediately. The sooner myelomalacia is diagnosed and treated, the less chance there is of long-term nerve damage or more serious complications occurring.

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