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Syringomyelia

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Mar 20, 2024.

Overview

Syringomyelia (sih-ring-go-my-E-lee-uh) is the development of a fluid-filled cyst within the spinal cord. The cyst, which is sometimes called a syrinx, can grow larger over time. When it does, it can damage the spinal cord and cause pain, weakness and stiffness.

Syringomyelia has several possible causes. Many cases are associated with a Chiari malformation. This is a condition in which brain tissue pushes into the spinal canal.

Other causes of syringomyelia include spinal cord tumors, spinal cord injuries and damage caused by swelling around the spinal cord.

If syringomyelia doesn't cause problems, monitoring the condition might be all that's necessary. But if the symptoms are bothersome, surgery might be needed.

Syringomyelia cyst (syrinx) in the spinal cord

Cerebrospinal fluid usually flows around the outside of the brain and spinal cord. In people with syringomyelia, cerebrospinal fluid collects inside the spinal cord and forms a fluid-filled cyst. The cyst is sometimes called a syrinx.

Symptoms

Syringomyelia symptoms usually develop slowly over time. If syringomyelia is caused by brain tissue pushing into the spinal canal, it is called a Chiari malformation. Symptoms generally begin between ages 25 and 40.

In some cases, coughing or straining can trigger symptoms of syringomyelia, although neither causes syringomyelia.

Syringomyelia might affect the back, shoulders, arms or legs. Symptoms can include:

When to see a doctor

If you have any of the symptoms associated with syringomyelia, see your healthcare professional.

If you've had a spinal cord injury, watch for symptoms of syringomyelia. It may take months to years after an injury before syringomyelia develops. Make sure your healthcare professional knows you had a spinal cord injury.

Causes

It's not clear how and why syringomyelia happens. When it develops, the fluid that surrounds, cushions and protects the brain and spinal cord collects within the spinal cord itself. This fluid is called cerebrospinal fluid. If it collects and forms a fluid-filled cyst, it is called a syrinx.

Several conditions and diseases can lead to syringomyelia, including:

Complications

In some people, syringomyelia can progress and lead to serious complications. Other people have no symptoms.

A syrinx can cause complications if it grows or damages nerves within the spinal cord. Complications include:

Diagnosis

Your healthcare professional asks about your medical history and do a complete physical exam. In some cases, syringomyelia might be discovered during a spine MRI or CT scan conducted for other reasons.

If your healthcare professional suspects you may have syringomyelia, you may need to undergo testing. Tests may include:

Treatment

Treatment for syringomyelia depends on how bad the symptoms are and the size of the syrinx.

Monitoring

If syringomyelia isn't causing symptoms, it may not need treatment. Your healthcare professional may check it from time to time with MRI and neurological exams.

Surgery

Surgery may be needed if syringomyelia is causing symptoms that get in the way of your life, or if symptoms rapidly worsen.

The goal of surgery is to remove the pressure the syrinx places on the spinal cord and to restore the regular flow of cerebrospinal fluid. This can help improve symptoms and nervous system function. The type of surgery needed depends on the cause of syringomyelia.

To reduce pressure on the brain and spinal cord, surgery options include:

Surgery doesn't always fix the syrinx. Sometimes the syrinx remains even after efforts to drain the fluid from it.

Follow-up care

Syringomyelia can come back after surgery. You'll need regular exams with your healthcare team. You might need an MRI now and then to check the outcome of surgery.

The syrinx can grow over time and may require more treatment. Even after treatment, some symptoms of syringomyelia can remain. This is because a syrinx can cause permanent damage to the spinal cord and nerves.

Lifestyle and home remedies

The following steps might help reduce the effects of syringomyelia.

Avoid activities that can make symptoms worse

Avoid activities that involve heavy lifting, straining or putting force on the spine.

Consider physical therapy and occupational therapy

A syringomyelia sometimes causes neurological conditions that decrease the ability to move. For instance, it may cause muscle weakness, pain, fatigue or stiffness. Physical and occupational therapy can help to improve muscle function. A physical therapist can create an exercise program that may help reduce these symptoms. An occupational therapist can teach you how to function better in your daily tasks.

Talk to your healthcare team about physical and occupational therapists in your area who have expertise in neurological conditions.

Manage chronic pain

If you have chronic pain from syringomyelia, talk to your healthcare team about treatment options. Many medical centers have doctors who specialize in pain management.

Coping and support

Living with syringomyelia and its complications can be challenging. Having someone to talk with, whether a friend, counselor or therapist, can be invaluable. Or you might find the support and encouragement you need in a syringomyelia support group.

Ask your healthcare professional to recommend a local group or look for groups online. A support group provides a place for sharing experiences. It also can be a good source of information and offer helpful tips for people with syringomyelia.

Preparing for an appointment

You're likely to start by seeing your family healthcare professional. You might get a referral to see a neurologist. A neurologist is a doctor trained in brain and nervous system conditions.

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What you can do

When you make the appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do in advance. If you have past medical reports, MRI scans or CT scans that might relate to your condition, bring them to your appointment.

Take a family member or friend to your appointment, if possible, to help you remember the information you receive.

Make a list of:

For syringomyelia, questions to ask your healthcare professional include:

What to expect from your doctor

Your healthcare professional is likely to ask you questions, including:

What you can do in the meantime

Avoid doing anything that worsens your symptoms. For many people with syringomyelia, heavy lifting and straining can trigger symptoms, so avoid these activities. Also, avoid flexing the neck.

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