A condition called tabes dorsalis includes syphilitic myelopathy and other symptoms of nerve damage.
The infection damages the spinal cord and peripheral nervous tissue.
Syphilitic myelopathy is now very rare because syphilis is usually treated early in the disease. Blood tests can identify the disease in its silent (latent) form. People who donate blood and pregnant women are tested for syphilis.
- Abnormal sensations (paresthesia), often called "lightning pains"
- Difficulty walking
- Loss of coordination
- Loss of reflexes
- Muscle weakness
- Wide-based gait (the person walks with the legs far apart)
In syphilitic myelopathy, there are also symptoms of nervous system damage, including:
- Mental illness
- Vision changes
Exams and Tests
Physical examination may show:
- Damage to the spinal cord (myelopathy)
- Pupils that react abnormally to light
- Reduced or absent reflexes due to nerve damage
Tests may include the following:
- Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) examination
- Head CT, spine CT, or MRI scans of the brain and spinal cord to rule out other diseases
- Serum VDRL or serum RPR (used as a screening test for syphilis infection)
If the serum VDRL or serum RPR test is positive, one of the following tests will be needed to confirm the diagnosis:
The goals of treatment are to cure the infection and slow the disorder from getting worse. Treating the infection helps prevent new nerve damage and may reduce symptoms. Treatment does not reverse existing nerve damage.
For neurosyphilis, aqueous penicillin G (by injection) is the drug of choice. Some patients (for example, pregnant women) with penicillin allergies may have to be desensitized to penicillin so that they can be safely treated with it.
Symptoms of existing nervous system damage need to be treated. People who are unable to eat, dress themselves, or take care of themselves may need help. Rehabilitation, physical therapy, and occupational therapy may help people who have muscle weakness.
You may need analgesics to control pain. These may include over-the-counter medications such as aspirin or acetaminophen for mild pain, or narcotics for more severe pain. Anti-epilepsy drugs such as carbamazepine may help treat lightning pains.
Progressive disability is possible if the disorder is left untreated.
Complications of late-stage syphilis infection may include:
- Damage to bones, skin, and other organs
- Disease of the heart valves
- Inflammation of the aorta (aortitis) with aortic aneurysm
Other complications include:
- Complications of neurosyphilis, including dementia, stroke, and eye disease
- Difficulty with walking and balance
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you have:
Proper treatment and follow-up of primary syphilis infections reduces the risk of developing syphilitic myelopathy.
If you are sexually active, practice safe sex and always use a condom.
All pregnant women should be screened for syphilis.
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Tremont EC. Treponema pallidum (syphilis). In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 238.
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Screening for syphilis infection in pregnancy: reaffirmation recommendation statement. Ann Fam Med. 2009;150:705-709. PMID: 19451577 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19451577.
Workowski KA, Berman S; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines, 2010. MMWR. 2010;59:1-110.
Reviewed By: Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.