Tabes dorsalis

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Tabes dorsalis
Classification and external resources
Specialty Infectious disease
ICD-10 A52.1
ICD-9-CM 094.0
DiseasesDB 29061
eMedicine neuro/684
MeSH D013606

Tabes dorsalis, also known as syphilitic myelopathy, is a slow degeneration (specifically, demyelination) of the nerves primarily in the dorsal columns (posterior columns) of the spinal cord (the portion closest to the back of the body). These nerves normally help maintain a person's sense of position (proprioception), vibration, and discriminative touch.

Signs and symptoms[edit]

Axial section of the spinal cord showing syphilitic destruction (whitened area, upper center) of the posterior columns which carry sensory information from the body to the brain

Signs and symptoms may not appear for decades after the initial infection and include weakness, diminished reflexes, paresthesias (shooting and burning pains, pricking sensations, and formication), hypoesthesias (abnormally diminished cutaneous, especially tactile, sensory modalities), tabetic gait (locomotor ataxia), progressive degeneration of the joints, loss of coordination, episodes of intense pain and disturbed sensation (including glossodynia), personality changes, urinary incontinence, dementia, deafness, visual impairment, positive Romberg's test, and impaired response to light (Argyll Robertson pupil). The skeletal musculature is hypotonic due to destruction of the sensory limb of the spindle reflex. The deep tendon reflexes are also diminished or absent; for example, the "knee jerk" or patellar reflex may be lacking (Westphal's sign). A complication of tabes dorsalis can be transient neuralgic paroxysmal pain affecting the eyes and the ophthalmic areas, previously called "Pel's crises" after Dutch physician P.K. Pel. Now more commonly called "tabetic ocular crises," an attack is characterized by sudden, intense eye pain, tearing of the eyes and sensitivity to light.[1][2]

"Tabes dorsalgia" is a related back pain.

"Tabetic gait" is a characteristic high-stepping gait of untreated syphilis where the person's feet slap the ground as they strike the floor due to loss of proprioception.


Tabes dorsalis is caused by demyelination caused by advanced syphilis infection (tertiary syphilis), when the primary infection by the causative spirochete bacterium Treponema pallidum is left untreated for an extended period of time (past the point of blood infection by the organism).[3]


Intravenously administered penicillin is the treatment of choice. Associated pain can be treated with opiates, valproate, or carbamazepine. Those with tabes dorsalis may also require physical therapy to deal with muscle wasting and weakness. Preventive treatment for those who come into sexual contact with an individual with syphilis is important.


Left untreated, tabes dorsalis can lead to paralysis, dementia, and blindness. Existing nerve damage cannot be reversed.


The disease is more frequent in males than in females. Onset is commonly during mid-life. The incidence of tabes dorsalis is rising, in part due to co-associated HIV infection.

Notable researchers[edit]

Although there were earlier clinical accounts of this disease, and descriptions and illustrations of the posterior columns of the spinal cord, it was the Berlin neurologist Romberg whos account became the classical textbook description, first published in German[4] and later translated into English.[5]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, completed his doctorate on tabes dorsalis in 1885.[6]

Notable patients[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Pel's Crisis". Retrieved December 14, 2009. 
  2. ^ Basic Clinical Neuroscience, Young, Young, and Tolbert. Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins, ISBN 978-0-7817-5319-7
  3. ^ "NINDS Tabes Dorsalis Information Page". Retrieved April 13, 2014. 
  4. ^ Romberg, Moritz (1840). Lehrbuch der Nervenkrankheiten des Menschen. Berlin: Duncker. 
  5. ^ Romberg, Moritz (1853). Tabes dorsalis. Chapter 49 in: A manual of the nervous diseases of man Vol 2 (Translated and edited by EH Sieveking ed.). London: New Sydenham Society. p. 395. 
  6. ^