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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. If left untreated, syringomyelia symptoms may worsen, in some cases requiring surgery. Syringomyelia has several possible causes. The majority of syringomyelia cases are associated with Chiari malformation, a condition in which brain tissue protrudes into your spinal canal. 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.
Complications of Syringomyelia
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 necessary. Complications that may occur as a syrinx grows, or if it damages nerves within your spinal cord, include:
Causes of Syringomyelia
Although it's unclear exactly how and why it happens, when syringomyelia 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).
The following conditions and diseases can lead to syringomyelia:
Signs & Symptoms of Syringomyelia
Symptoms of syringomyelia usually develop slowly over time. If your syringomyelia is caused by Chiari malformation — a condition in which brain tissue protrudes into your spinal canal — symptoms may begin during your teenage years or early adulthood. In some cases, a fall, minor trauma, coughing or straining may trigger symptoms of syringomyelia, although none of these causes syringomyelia.
The following early signs and symptoms of syringomyelia may affect the back of your neck, shoulders, arms and hands first:
Other signs and symptoms of syringomyelia may include:
Diagnosis of Syringomyelia
Treatments of Syringomyelia
Treatment for syringomyelia depends on the severity and progression of your signs and symptoms.
If syringomyelia is discovered on an MRI scan that's done for an unrelated reason, and it's not causing signs or symptoms, monitoring with periodic MRI and neurological exams may be all that's necessary. In rare cases, a syrinx may resolve on its own without treatment.
If syringomyelia is causing signs and symptoms that interfere with your daily life, or if signs and symptoms rapidly worsen, surgery is usually recommended. The goal of surgery is to remove the pressure the syrinx places on your spinal cord and to restore the normal flow of cerebrospinal fluid. The type of surgery you'll need depends on the underlying cause of syringomyelia.
Typically, surgery for syringomyelia includes one or more of the following:
Surgery doesn't always effectively restore the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, and the syrinx may remain, despite efforts to drain the fluid from it.
Follow-up care after surgery is critical because syringomyelia may recur. You'll need regular examinations with your doctor, including periodic MRI tests, to assess the outcome of surgery. Other syrinxes may form, requiring additional surgery. Even after treatment, some signs and symptoms of syringomyelia may remain, as a syrinx can cause permanent spinal cord and nerve damage.
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