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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

    CPM

  • 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.

    Risks include:

  • Symptoms

    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:

  • Treatment

    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.

  • Complications
    • 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.

  • Prevention

    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.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- 2014 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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