Spinal cord abscess is the swelling and irritation (inflammation) and the collection of infected material (pus) in or around the spinal cord.
Abscess - spinal cord
A spinal cord abscess is caused by an infection inside the spine. An abscess of the spinal cord itself is very rare. A spinal abscess usually occurs as a complication of an epidural abscess.
Pus forms as a collection of:
Destroyed tissue cells
Live and dead bacteria and other microorganisms
White blood cells
The pus is commonly covered by a lining or membrane that forms around the edges. The pus collection causes pressure on the spinal cord.
The infection is usually due to bacteria. Often it is caused by a staphylococcus infection that spreads through the spine. It may be caused by tuberculosis in some areas of the world, but this is not as common today as it was in the past. In rare cases, the infection may be due to a fungus.
The following increase your risk of a spinal cord abscess:
Back injuries or trauma, including minor ones
Boils on the skin, especially on the back or scalp
Spread of any infection through the bloodstream from another part of the body (bacteremia)
The infection often begins in the bone (osteomyelitis). The bone infection may cause an epidural abscess to form. This abscess gets larger and presses on the spinal cord. The infection can spread to the cord itself.
A spinal cord abscess is rare. When it does occur it can be life-threatening.
Kim CW, Currier BL, Eismont FJ. Infections of the spine. In: Herkowita HN, Garfin SR, Eismont FJ, Bell GR, Balderston RA, eds. Rothman-Simeone The Spine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 86.
Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.