Spinal Problems Spinal Cord

The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system that controls the entire body. The spinal cord is comprised of a large bundle of nerves running from the base of the brain to the upper part of the lower back, and nerves exit the spinal cord going to every part of the body. In addition to back pain, spinal cord problems can also cause loss of bodily function, including paralysis.

Although spinal cord injuries due to trauma are the most common cause of spinal cord problems, there are many causes of spinal cord problems.


Arachnoiditis causes severe, chronic pain due to the inflammation of the arachnoid lining, one of the three membranes (meninges) that surround the spinal cord. The most common symptom of arachnoiditis is persistent, chronic pain in the lower back and legs. Arachnoiditis has no cure, and treatments typically focus on relieving pain and reducing symptoms that interfere with daily life.


Syringomyelia occurs when cerebrospinal fluid (which is normally outside of the spinal cord and brain) enters the interior of the spinal cord. The fluid causes a cavity or cyst (known as a “syrinx”) to form inside the spinal cord. The syrinx may become larger over time, destroying the center of the spinal cord. Typically, a specific pattern of sensory abnormalities and deficits occur. These spinal cord problems can lead to:

  • Back pain
  • Stiffness in the back, shoulders, arms or legs
  • Weakness.

Spinal Cord Infections

Meningitis and polio are spinal cord infections that can have serious consequences, and in some cases, may be fatal.

  • Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges that surround the brain and spinal cord.
  • Polio (poliomyelitis) is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus that lives in the throat and intestinal tract. The polio virus attacks the brain and spinal cord.

Degenerative Spinal Cord Problems

Degenerative diseases of the spinal cord affect the nerve cells that control bodily function.

  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, attacks nerve cells (neurons) in the brain and spinal cord. Because these neurons send messages to your voluntary muscles, muscle problems develop, leading to loss of strength and ability to move. When the chest muscles fail, people with ALS can die from respiratory failure.
  • Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a genetic disease that causes weakness and atrophy of the voluntary muscles in the arms and legs of infants and children. SMA has no cure, but medicines and physical therapy help treat symptoms. Life expectancy of SMA patients depends on the type of SMA and how it affects breathing.

Other Spinal Cord Problems

Other spinal cord problems include the growth of tumors, some of which can be malignant Also, the compression of the spinal cord by surrounding structures due to narrowing of the spinal canal (spinal stenosis) can lead to back problems.


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

Dawson, E. M.D., Walsh, M. (2009). Arachnoiditis. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from http://www.spineuniverse.com/conditions/arachnoiditis

Medline Plus Staff. (2009). Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/amyotrophiclateralsclerosis.html

Medline Plus Staff. (2010). Spinal muscular atrophy. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/spinalmuscularatrophy.html

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Staff. (2010). Syringomyelia fact sheet. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/syringomyelia/detail_syringomyelia.htm

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