Acute severe spinal cord dysfunction in bacterial meningitis in adults: MRI findings suggest extensive myelitis

Arch Neurol. 2001 May;58(5):806-10. doi: 10.1001/archneur.58.5.806.


Background: Bacterial meningitis is rarely complicated by acute spinal cord involvement (eg, myelitis, ischemic infarction, spinal abscess, or epidural hemorrhage). In spinal cord dysfunction, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is the imaging modality of choice. Still, MRI findings of myelitis due to bacterial meningitis in adults have not been reported.

Methods: Spinal MRIs were obtained during the acute stage of meningitis and on follow-up in 3 adults with bacterial meningitis that was complicated by paraparesis or tetraparesis and bowel and bladder incontinence. The causative pathogens were Streptococcus pneumoniae and Neisseria meningitidis; in 1 patient, the pathogen was not identified.

Results: In all cases, spinal MRI ruled out a compression of the cord by an extramedullary mass but demonstrated hyperintensities on T2-weighted images that predominantly involved the gray matter and extended from the cervical to the lumbar cord. Leptomeningeal and discrete nodular intramedullary enhancement on T1-weighted images was detected only in 1 patient. Follow-up examinations revealed that hyperintensities resolved completely in 1 patient, while a central cavitation developed in the cervical spinal cord of another, and the MRI findings were progressive during the first 4 weeks in the third patient. In all cases, severe paresis and bowel and bladder incontinence persisted.

Conclusion: We demonstrate for the first time the MRI findings of adults with acute spinal cord involvement during bacterial meningitis. Magnetic resonance imaging showed central intramedullary hyperintensities on T2-weighted images that extended from the cervical to the lumbar cord, indicating myelitis. Clinical follow-up examinations suggest that myelitis during bacterial meningitis has an unfavorable prognosis.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Meningitis, Bacterial / physiopathology*
  • Meningitis, Meningococcal
  • Myelitis / diagnosis
  • Myelitis / microbiology
  • Pneumococcal Infections
  • Spinal Cord / physiopathology*