Every year approximately 1000 people in the UK sustain a spinal injury as a result of trauma. However, the spinal cord can be injured in a number of ways. Transverse myelitis, (“transverse” = across, “myelitis” = inflammation), is estimated to affect 300 people in the UK each year and can occur at any age. The exact cause is not known, although it is thought to be the result of an autoimmune reaction in the body.

The inflammation of the spinal cord disrupts nerve impulses travelling between the brain and the body, and can lead to long-term problems. Inflammation can occur at any point along the spinal cord, and symptoms will depend on which section of the spinal cord is affected, the severity, and how much damage has been caused.

The main symptoms of transverse myelitis are sudden muscle weakness in the legs and less commonly, in the arms and hands, changes in sensation, such as numbness and tingling, pain, and bladder and bowel problems.

As there is currently no cure for transverse myelitis, treatments and therapies focus on hastening recovery and relieving the symptoms and after effects.

Rehabilitation in this group of people is paramount, as the earlier they receive appropriate treatment the better their overall outcome. Physiotherapists, occupational therapists, continence specialists, clinical psychologists or counsellors may all be involved in the long-term rehabilitation and needs of these people. If people are left with long-term problems, they may require adaptations to the home and reasonable adjustments in the workplace.

Even if a person's recovery is slow, it is still important to persevere with rehabilitation, as these help to maintain whatever degree of recovery has been made.

Transverse myelitis affects everyone differently, so recovery varies for each individual. Recovery usually begins within a few days or weeks of onset of symptoms and can continue for up to two years, in a few cases even longer.

Damage or injury to the spinal cord presents huge physical and psychological challenges, especially if full recovery is not possible. People need ongoing multidisciplinary rehabilitation to regain as much independence as possible.