Multiple sclerosis of the spinal cord: magnetic resonance appearance

J Comput Assist Tomogr. May-Jun 1996;20(3):434-8. doi: 10.1097/00004728-199605000-00022.


Objective: To determine the MR appearance of spinal cord multiple sclerosis (MS) plaques in patients presenting with myelopathy by using a high-field (1.5 T) imager.

Materials and methods: We studied 119 patients who underwent high-field (1.5 T) MR studies of the spinal cord for evaluation of myelopathy. All 119 patients were thought to have possible findings of spinal cord MS at the time of the MRI interpretation.

Results: Sixty-four plaques were studied in 47 patients with clinically definite MS and adequate quality MRI. Of these patients 68% had a single spinal cord plaque, 19% had two plaques, and 13% had three or more plaques. Sixty-two percent of the plaques occurred in the cervical spinal cord and most frequently involved the posterior (41%) and lateral (25%) aspects of the spinal cord. None of the 64 lesions involved the entire thickness of the spinal cord. The lesion length varied from 2 to 60 mm, with 84% of the lesions < 15 mm in length. The spinal cord diameter was unchanged in 84% of plaques, enlarged at the level of the lesion in 14%, and atrophic in 2%. Just over half (55%) of the plaques enhanced with intravenously administered gadolinium. Of the patients who received synchronous head and spinal cord examinations on the same day, 24% had normal findings on the MR study of the head. Follow-up spinal cord studies were available in nine patients. New lesions developed in two patients, while previously described lesions resolved. In three patients only new lesions developed. In four patients no change occurred in the existing number of cord plaques.

Conclusion: Spinal cord demyelinating plaques present as well-circumscribed foci of increased T2 signal that asymmetrically involve the spinal cord parenchyma. Knowledge of their usual appearance may prevent unnecessary biopsy. An MR examination of the head may confirm the imaging suggestion of spinal cord demyelinating disease, because up to 76% of patients have abnormal intracranial findings. In the remaining 24% of cases in which the clinical diagnosis is not certain and MR findings in the head are negative, a follow-up spinal cord study is recommended, because these lesions evolve and change over time.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Multiple Sclerosis / diagnosis*
  • Multiple Sclerosis / pathology
  • Spinal Cord / pathology*