Spinal Problems Spinal Cord Infection

Meningitis and polio are two spinal cord infections that can have serious consequences, and in some cases, can be fatal. Rapid diagnosis and treatment is critical for good outcomes.

Viral and Bacterial Meningitis

Meningitis is an inflammation of the thin membranes (meninges) that surround the brain and spinal cord. Most cases of meningitis are either viral or bacterial. However, rare causes include fungi, parasites and non-infectious origins, including drugs.

Viral meningitis is the most common form of the disease, and usually resolves without permanent damage. Bacterial meningitis is a much more serious disease that often requires emergency treatment. Bacterial meningitis can cause:

  • Brain damage
  • Hearing loss
  • Learning disabilities.

In some cases, bacterial meningitis can be fatal.

The symptoms of viral and bacterial meningitis are the same, so you’ll want to see a doctor to get an accurate diagnosis. In people over the age of two, the common symptoms of meningitis are high fever, headache and stiff neck that develop over a time period of several hours to two days. Other symptoms of these spinal cord infections may include:

  • Confusion
  • Discomfort looking into bright lights
  • Nausea
  • Sleepiness
  • Vomiting.

Infants with meningitis may vomit or not want to feed, seem slow or inactive, and be irritable. As meningitis progresses, people of any age can experience seizures.

The treatment for bacterial meningitis is usually antibiotics. Viral meningitis has no specific treatment, and most people recover within two weeks. In order to relieve fever and headache in these cases, doctors often recommend:

  • Bed rest
  • Medicine
  • Plenty of fluids.

Both viral and bacterial meningitis are contagious. Scientists have developed a vaccine that protects against some forms of bacterial meningitis. Bacterial meningitis outbreaks have traditionally occurred in places where young people live together, such as college dormitories. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends routine vaccination of everyone 11 to 18 years of age.

Polio and the Polio Vaccine

Polio (poliomyelitis) is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus that lives in the throat and intestinal tract and attacks the brain and spinal cord.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 95 percent of people infected with the poliovirus have no symptoms. However, some people with polio do experience minor symptoms, such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Pain in the arms or legs
  • Stiffness in the neck and back.

The CDC reports that fewer than 1 percent of people with polio experience permanent paralysis (which, when it does occur, usually occurs in the legs). Approximately 5 to 10 percent of the people who experience paralysis die when their respiratory muscles become paralyzed.

Polio is uncommon in the United State since the introduction of the oral polio vaccine (OPV) in 1955. The United States now uses an updated form of the vaccine, called the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV). The OPV, however, is still used in many parts of the world to prevent polio.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Staff. (2010). Meningitis questions and answers. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from http://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/about/faq.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Staff. (2010). Polio disease in-short. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/polio/in-short-both.htm

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Staff. (2010). Polio vaccination. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/polio/default.htm#disease

Vorvick, L. M.D. (2009). Poliomyelitis. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001402.htm