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Central pontine myelinolysis
Central pontine myelinolysis is brain cell dysfunction caused by the destruction of the layer (myelin sheath) covering nerve cells in the brainstem (pons).
- Alternative Names
- Causes, incidence, and risk factors
The destruction of the myelin sheath that covers nerve cells prevents signals from being properly transmitted in the nerve. This decreases the nerve's ability to communicate with other cells.
The most common cause of central pontine myelinolysis is a quick change in the body's sodium levels. This most often occurs when someone is being treated for low levels of sodium (hyponatremia) and the levels rise too fast. It also can occasionally occur when high levels of sodium in the body (hypernatremia) are corrected too quickly.
This condition does not occur on its own. It is a complication of treatment for other conditions or from the other conditions themselves.
- Confusion, delirium
- Difficulty swallowing
- Double vision
- Muscle spasms in the face, arms, or legs
- Reduced alertness, drowsiness or sleepiness, lethargy, poor responses
- Reduced vision
- Speech changes, poor enunciation
- Weakness in the face, arms, or legs, usually affecting both sides of the body
Other possible symptoms include:
- Signs and tests
An examination may show:
- Abnormal reflexes
- Cranial nerve VI paralysis (see cranial mononeuropathy VI)
- Involvement of all four arms and legs (spastic quadriplegia)
- Loss of eye muscle control
- Weakness of the face, arms, and legs (upper motor neuron syndromes)
A head MRI scan would reveal an abnormality in the brainstem (pons). This is the main diagnostic test.
Other tests may include:
- Blood sodium levels and other blood tests
- Brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER)
This is an emergency disorder. You will need to go to a hospital for diagnosis and treatment.
There is no known cure for central pontine myelinolysis. Treatment is focused on relieving symptoms.
Double vision may be reduced with the use of an eye patch.
Physical therapy may help maintain muscle strength, mobility and function in weakened arms and legs.
- Expectations (prognosis)
The nerve damage caused by central pontine myelinolysis is usually long-lasting. The disorder can cause serious long-term (chronic) disability.
- Decreased ability to interact with others
- Decreased ability to work or care for self
- Inability to move, other than to blink eyes ("locked in" syndrome)
- Permanent nervous system damage
- Calling your health care provider
There is no real guideline on when to seek medical attention, because this condition is rare in the general community.
Gradual, controlled treatment of low or high sodium levels may reduce the risk of nerve damage in the pons. Being aware of how some medications can change sodium levels can prevent these levels from changing too quickly.
Review Date: 9/25/2008
Reviewed By: Daniel B. Hoch, PhD, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School, Department of Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.