Arachnoiditis is a disorder that causes pain as a result of inflammation of the arachnoid. The arachnoid is a membrane that protects the nerves in the spinal cord. When it becomes inflamed, it causes a profound stinging and burning pain and symptoms that affect the nervous system.

What are the symptoms and signs of arachnoiditis?

Most commonly, arachnoiditis causes symptoms in the lower limbs and the back. It can also affect bowel movements and contribute to impaired sexual function.

The most common signs of arachnoiditis include:

  • pain, which can be persistent or shooting
  • a burning sensation, usually in the legs
  • tingling in the legs
  • a feeling of weakness in the legs
  • muscle spasms
  • twitching

In some cases, as the disorder gets worse, symptoms become more severe and may result in long-term sickness and chronic pain. Some people with arachnoiditis are forced to give up work.

Diagnosing arachnoiditis

CAT and MRI scans can be used to diagnose arachnoiditis. Once a diagnosis has been made, an electromyogram, which tests nerve function, can help to determine the extent of the damage to the nerves.

What are the causes of arachnoiditis?

Arachnoiditis is characterised by inflammation of the arachnoid, which may result from:

  • trauma and back injuries
  • viral infections and illnesses that affect the spinal cord, such as meningitis
  • long-term compression of nerves in the back (this may result from the collapse of a disc or narrowing of the spine)
  • complications following spinal surgery
  • Chemical dyes and preservatives: there were concerns that dye used in diagnostic tests contributed to arachnoiditis. However, the dye concerned is no longer in use. It is thought that preservative used in steroid epidural injections may increase the risk of arachnoiditis

What are the treatment options for arachnoiditis?

There is currently no cure for arachnoiditis. However, there are treatments that can be used to alleviate pain and reduce the severity of symptoms. Doctors usually work with physiotherapists to manage and reduce pain and enable the individual to live as comfortably as possible.

Surgery is not usually recommended for arachnoiditis because the results tend to be short-term and there are risks involved. Other treatments, such as steroid injections and electrical stimulation therapy, are currently being trialled.

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