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What are the Symptoms of Tabes?

Tabes dorsalis, a late manifestation of syphilis, presents with symptoms like sharp, lightning pains, loss of coordination, and numbness in the limbs. Patients may also experience vision changes and bladder dysfunction. This neurological condition can profoundly impact quality of life. Curious about how tabes progresses and the treatment options available? Continue exploring to understand the journey to recovery.
Shannon Kietzman
Shannon Kietzman

Tabes dorsalis is a medical condition that results from syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, when it is left untreated. According to the United States Center for Disease Control, about 7,000 cases of syphilis were reported in the United States in 2001. About 5% of these patients went on to develop tabes dorsalis.

Tabes dorsalis typically manifests about fifteen to twenty years after the patient becomes infected with syphilis. Individuals with immunity dysfunctions, such as those associated with Auto Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), usually develop tabes dorsalis much sooner. In addition, the condition is more common in middle aged males, as well as in homosexuals. Certain areas of the United States, such as the southern portion and the inner city areas of San Francisco and New York, also have more prevalent cases of tabes dorsalis.


When a person first becomes infected with syphilis, the bacteria causing the disease spreads through the blood stream to the spinal cord and the brain. It can, however, go for years without any symptoms. Over time, this leads to a neurological disorder called neurosyphilis when it is left untrated. This results in damage to the spinal cord. This damage is called tabes dorsalis.

An individual with tabes dorsalis experiences inflammation in the dorsal column portion of the spinal cord, which is the part of the cord located nearest to the back. This causes the nerve cells to degenerate and may also affect other nerves in the body, such as those that control hearing, vision, eye movement, and bladder and bowel control.

As a result of the nerve damage caused by tabes dorsalis, a victim of the disorder may experience a variety of symptoms. These can include an unsteady walk, reduced reflexes, and general weakness. A person with tabes dorsalis may also experience visual impairment, dementia, personality changes, and deafness. Those affected may also have difficulty responding appropriately to light and may experience a loss of coordination and moments of severe pain.

The pain experienced by those with tabes dorsalis is often described as a stabbing-like pain that comes on very quickly. It most often occurs in the legs, though it may also appear in other areas of the body. Individuals with tabes dorsalis also experience other odd sensations, such as burning, tingling, or a sense of coldness.

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