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What Are the Causes of Demyelination?

By Jennifer Long
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Demyelination is the breakdown of the protective covering of the nerve fibers in the spinal cord and brain. This protective covering, called a myelin sheath, helps promote proper nerve function. Demyelination is a condition known as demyelinating disease. There are several causes of demyelination.

Myelin, found in the insulating white matter around the nerves, is an important part of the nerves. During transmission of information, myelin has the responsibility of receiving and interpreting the messages sent from the brain. When myelin is damaged or destroyed, message transmission speed slows down. The brain is sending messages as it should, but the nerves are not receiving them quick enough.

One of the most common causes is multiple sclerosis. This disease occurs when a person’s immune system starts attacking the myelin nerve coverings, often as a result of chronic inflammation. Without the covering, nerve damage occurs. People with multiple sclerosis can experience scarring, called lesions, in the spine and brain. The scarring prevents proper nerve transmission through the body.

Transverse myelitis is another one of the possible causes of this condition. This disorder affects the neurological system. It causes the breakdown of myelin around the nerves and the axons of nerves. Chronic inflammation occurs on both sides of the spinal cord. Inflammation and demyelination are often a result of a primary condition such as multiple sclerosis.

Another cause is inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy. Two common forms of this condition are chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) and Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS). CIDP and GBS cause a degeneration of myelin that is the result of an immune system response. The cells of the immune system see the body’s nerves as foreign antigens and begin attacking them.

Many causes of demyelination do not currently have cures. Medications can be prescribed by doctors to reduce the formation of lesions. Managing symptoms and slowing the progression of the primary condition are the main focus of treatments. Using medications to help with symptom management is part of treatment.

Treatments for any of the causes of demyelination depend on each individual and what type of condition the person has. Due to how demyelination and the primary condition affect the nerves and the body in general, treatments often include more than just prescription medications. Doctors may also choose to implement physical therapy as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. Physical therapy helps patients learn how to keep muscles moving properly. This treatment can also help patients learn to live fully despite their debilitation.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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