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The Rollin' RN's

Syringomyelia…What’s that?

Just when we thought we finally had a handle on everything we needed to know about our Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) we learn there’s yet one more condition we need to be aware of. That’s the topic The Rollin’ RNs want to share with you today. Again, we are not writing this article to frighten you but just want to keep you in the loop about what’s out there when it comes to living with an SCI. So with that in mind, those who have an SCI caused by trauma to the spine need to be aware of this potential complication that, although not that common, can develop any time after injury. This condition is called SYRINGOMYELIA.

So, what is SYRINGOMYELIA (sih-ring-go-my-e-lee-uh)? Syringomyelia is a condition that causes fluid-filled cysts, which doctors call “syrinx,” to form inside the spinal cord. Some people don’t have symptoms and might not even know they have it. But in more severe cases, it can cause problems that need to be treated. You get this condition when the normal flow of spinal fluid is blocked and can cause a syrinx to form. So, you might ask yourself, what’s blocking the flow of spinal fluid? The answer is thought to be scarring that formed in the spinal cord from whatever trauma caused our injury in the first place. Imagine a beaver building a dam in the river. As debris piles up, it makes the dam bigger, blocking the flow of water downstream. Likewise, as the syrinx expands and lengthens over time, it adds additional pressure to the spinal cord resulting in more damage. This can lead to additional loss of movement or feeling, or the onset of pain.

What Are The Symptoms? Some people with syringomyelia won’t have any symptoms and won’t need treatment. For others, it will cause symptoms and complications that worsen as the syrinx expands. Symptoms usually develop slowly over many years but can appear suddenly after an accident.

They might include:

  • Progressive decline in sensation, function and/or strength in the back, shoulders, arms or legs

  • Progressive bowel and bladder function problems

You should visit your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

How’s It Diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects you have syringomyelia, you may be referred to a neurologist, a doctor who is a specialist in treating the nervous system. They will most likely order a magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI) to look for a syrinx in the spinal cord. It is considered the most reliable diagnostic tool for diagnosing this condition.

What’s the Treatment? Treatment depends on the progression of the condition and whether you’re experiencing symptoms that disrupt your life. If you have no symptoms or mild symptoms, you may not need treatment. However, your neurologist should continue to monitor for any further progression. Otherwise, your doctor may prescribe medication for pain, physical therapy and lastly surgery if needed.

Now what?

The outlook for those who undergo treatment and have a successful surgery varies. Damage to the spinal cord may be severe enough to cause permanent neurological issues such as weakness in the limbs. But because the syrinx has been treated, there’s hope that these conditions will continue to improve with physical therapy and time. However, it’s important to attend follow-up appointments with your doctor. You’ll need periodic MRI scans because syringomyelia can reoccur. So tuck this new knowledge into the back of your mind. Be aware of changes in sensation, function, pain and strength. With any change, speak with your doctor, and report changes EARLY! As always, be proactive in your health! It’s all good, so keep on rollin’. Roberta, RN and Patty, BSN, RNC The Rollin’ RNs ™


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We are thrilled that you are on a journey to learn more about your life with a spinal cord injury. As nurses with spinal cord injures ourselves, we get it! Read more about us and why we write!

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