What Are Demyelinating Diseases?

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on September 06, 2022
7 min read

Most of the nerves in your body are covered with a protective layer called myelin. It’s a lot like the insulation on electric wires. It helps messages from your brain move quickly and smoothly through your body, the way electricity flows from a power source.

Demyelinating disorders are any conditions that damage myelin. When this happens, scar tissue forms in its place. Brain signals can’t move across scar tissue as quickly, so your nerves don’t work as well as they should.

Symptoms: The most common symptoms of demyelinating disorders are:

Causes: In many cases, doctors aren’t sure what causes these conditions. They know that some result from:

  • A virus
  • Inflammation from an immune response that goes awry and causes your body to attack its own tissues; you may hear this called an autoimmune condition.
  • Your genes
  • Damage to blood vessels in your brain
  • Lack of oxygen to the brain

Treatment: There’s no cure for these conditions, so early treatment is important. Your doctor will work with you to:

  • Lessen the effects of the attack
  • Control the disease course
  • Manage your symptoms

Medications can ease your pain, fatigue, and stiff muscles. Physical therapy can help with muscles that don’t work the way they used to.

There are several demyelinating diseases:

This is the most common demyelinating disorder. One in 500 people have it. It’s an autoimmune condition that attacks your brain, spinal cord, and optic nerve. There are four main courses of the disease that predict how fast it will progress. MS is more likely to affect women. It has a genetic link and may also be triggered by something in a person's environment.

The most common symptoms are:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Vision problems
  • Trouble moving
  • Tingling, burning, or other odd feelings

There’s no cure, but there are medications to change the course and lower the number of relapses. Plus there are many treatments and techniques to keep your symptoms in check. Know more about the early signs and symptoms of MS.

Children are more likely to get this brief but widespread bout of inflammation that damages myelin in the brain and spinal cord. Sometimes it affects the optic nerve, which connects your eye to your brain. You get ADEM when your body attacks its own tissues in response to an infection with a virus or bacteria. It’s rare, but it can also be a reaction to a vaccine. Sometimes the cause is unknown.

Symptoms usually come on quickly. They include:

Drugs that fight inflammation can stop the damage to the nerves in your brain and spinal cord. A doctor also can prescribe other medicine to ease some ADEM symptoms. Most people recover fully within 6 months, though in very rare cases, ADEM can be deadly. Learn more about the causes and symptoms of ADEM.

Some doctors think of Balo’s disease as a rare form of MS because the symptoms are the same in many ways.

Experts don’t know why people get it, but it can cause serious problems. It can be fatal, but it’s possible to recover fully, too. Asians and people from the Philippines are the most likely to get it. It affects adults more often than children.

Symptoms might come on quickly and get worse in a short amount of time. Or they might go away quickly. They include:

There isn’t a cure for Balo’s disease, and no drugs treat it. Your doctor can suggest medications to help with your symptoms, including steroids to bring down the swelling in your brain and spinal cord. Get more information about Balo's disease.

It affects peripheral nerves that lie outside your brain and spinal cord and send signals to the muscles in your limbs. It’s a condition you inherit from your parents when you’re born.  Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease is not an autoimmune condition.

Symptoms usually show up in your late teens or early adult years. But they can come on in midlife, too. You may notice:

  • Weakness in your legs, ankles, and feet
  • Loss of muscle mass in your legs and feet
  • Trouble raising your legs and moving your ankles
  • Less feeling in your legs and feet
  • Changes to your feet, like higher arches or curled toes
  • Trouble walking or running
  • Tripping or falling

There’s no cure, but your doctor may give you medicines for pain. They’ll also suggest physical and occupational therapy to help you learn to use any affected limbs. Exercise can help you build stamina and keep muscles strong. Over time, you may need braces and splints for weak joints. Find out more on treatments for Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome.

Like CMT, this condition also attacks peripheral nerves. It often starts with weakness in your legs that moves to your arms and upper body. It can lead to paralysis. And it could be life-threatening if it causes trouble breathing. Doctors don’t know the cause, but it often follows a respiratory or digestive tract infection. Some people get it after surgery or a bout of the flu or a bacterial infection. Most people reach maximum weakness within 2-3 weeks.

The most common symptoms include:

  • Tingling in your fingers, toes, ankles, or wrists
  • Weakness in your legs that spreads to your upper body
  • Trouble walking or climbing stairs
  • Bowel or bladder problems
  • Trouble moving your face, speaking, or chewing

There’s no cure for GBS. Doctors try to lessen its effects with medication and speed up recovery. Plasma exchange (PLEX) is a common treatment. It removes some of the liquid part of your blood, called plasma, and replaces it with a manmade version. Another option is intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG). The doctor puts proteins called immunoglobulins into your veins. They’re the same proteins your body uses to attack invaders, but they come from healthy donors. If the disease affects body functions like breathing, you’ll need treatment in a hospital. Caregivers may help move your limbs when you can’t to prevent clots. Later, you’ll get physical therapy to help you use your limbs again. Know more about the causes and symptoms of Guillain-Barre syndrome.

This condition results from a virus called HTLV-1. It can make your brain and spinal cord swell, which causes the symptoms of the disease. Not everyone who has the virus will get HAM. Some people also carry HTLV-1 but have no symptoms.

People with HAM usually live near the equator. You get it by coming into contact with blood or other body fluids of someone who has the disease. It isn’t usually fatal, but it can be. You might live with the disease for decades.

Symptoms include:

  • Weakness in your legs that gets worse over time
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Stiff muscles
  • Muscle spasms
  • Bladder problems
  • Constipation
  • Double vision
  • Deafness
  • Coordination problems
  • Tremors

There isn’t a cure, but steroids can help ease your symptoms.

This rare autoimmune disease can affect your eyes, arms, and legs. You may have blurred vision or lose your eyesight. If it’s in your spinal cord, your legs and arms might not work well.

If you have one attack of neuromyelitis optica, you’ll probably get another. But if your doctor catches the disease early, they’ll have a better chance of treating your symptoms. They may try drugs that turn down your immune system so you don’t have relapses.

Symptoms include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of eyesight
  • Eye pain
  • Weak or numb arms and legs
  • Bladder and bowel problems
  • Vomiting
  • Uncontrollable hiccups

Neuromyelitis optica doesn’t have a cure but the drugs eculizumab (Soliris), inebilizumab-Cdon (Uplizna), and satralizumab-mwge (Enspryng) have been approved for treatment. They work by targeting the defective antibodies that attack the healthy cells in your body, triggering NMO. Your doctor may order an infusion of steroids to help with swelling. They may also try a treatment called plasma exchange.

Drugs that suppress your immune system, like azathioprine (Azasan, Imuran), methotrexate (Otrexup), mycophenolate (CellCept), and rituximab (Rituxan, Ruxience, Truxima), can help prevent further attacks. Read more on treatment for neuromyelitis optica.

This rare condition most often affects boys between ages 7 and 12. It wears away myelin in the brain and spinal cord. Severe cases can affect breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.

Doctors aren’t sure what causes Schilder’s disease, but it usually starts with an infection. Often, a headache and fever are the first symptoms.

This disease is hard to predict. Some people will have flares of symptoms followed by times of recovery. For others, the disease slowly gets worse over time. Signs include:

  • Weakness on one side of the body
  • Slow movements
  • Seizures
  • Trouble speaking
  • Vision and hearing problems
  • Memory problems
  • Change in personality
  • Weight loss

There’s no cure, but some people can manage their symptoms well with steroids and drugs that calm the immune system. Learn more about Schilder's disease and how to treat it.

This spinal cord disorder can cause symptoms throughout your body. It depends on where on your spinal cord you lose myelin. It also makes you more likely to be diagnosed with MS later on. There are about 1,400 new cases of transverse myelitis each year.

It affects kids and adults, but women are more likely to get it than men. Doctors aren’t sure about the cause, but it often follows an infection. Some people have long-lasting effects. Others recover with no problems.

Symptoms include:

  • Problems moving your legs
  • Bladder and bowel problems
  • Lower back pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Tingling or numbness in your toes
  • Fatigue

There’s no cure for transverse myelitis and no FDA-approved medication to treat it. Steroid shots or plasma exchange (PLEX) may bring down the swelling in your spinal cord and ease other symptoms. Get more information about transverse myelitis causes, symptoms, and treatment.