How Does Syphilis Affect the Spinal Cord?

Given the advancement of modern medicine and the plethora of STD treatments available, sexually active adults may not feel particularly concerned about syphilis transmission. Whether you have one partner or multiple sexual contacts, so long as you receive regular STD testing, you’re unlikely to experience serious complications.

However, untreated syphilis can cause a whole host of problems. Specifically, the infection can spread and damage the spinal cord, which can lead to further complications in the nervous system – but how does syphilis affect the spinal cord?

When left untreated, syphilis can cause a condition known as tabes dorsalis, one of five forms of neurosyphilis. While tabes dorsalis is extremely rare due to the availability of syphilis treatment, it’s critical that sexually active adults learn about this condition in case of infection. In this article, Rapid STD Testing will discuss the stages of syphilis, syphilis symptoms, and how you can take control of your sexual health.

Stages of Syphilis: Does Syphilis Affect the Brain?

Given the unfortunate amount of misinformation out there, you may be wondering: how does syphilis affect the spinal cord? Does syphilis affect the brain? And if so, how are these complications treated?

Despite the many syphilis myths floating around that claim otherwise, the disease is treatable, even at later stages. When you come across posts about STDs online, remember: the best prevention is education, and that requires accurate information from trusted sources, like Rapid STD Testing.

First, it’s important to establish the basics. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection that progresses over a series of four stages:

1.  Primary syphilis

2.  Secondary syphilis

3.  Latent or “hidden” syphilis

4.  Tertiary syphilis

Initial infections usually produce a sore in an area that has been exposed to bodily fluids during sexual contact, and it will usually appear in the first three weeks after exposure. This stage is primary syphilis.

Should someone with the infection choose not to seek medical attention, the initial sore may heal on its own. However, after a few weeks, their condition may transition into secondary syphilis. The second stage causes a full-body rash, and it’s at this point that other clinical manifestations of syphilis may begin to appear, such as:

  • Sore throat
  • Hair loss
  • Muscle aches
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Headaches 
  • Fatigue

Symptoms of secondary syphilis may fade and reappear, and this cycle can continue for up to a year. If the infection continues to go untreated, it will progress to the latent stage, during which time most people see no symptoms. This stage can persist for many years. With luck, the symptoms may disappear entirely, but it’s possible for the infection to progress even further. 

Tertiary syphilis can cause serious health complications. Untreated tertiary syphilis can damage organs, bones, and blood vessels. Likewise, ocular syphilis can occur if the infection spreads to the eyes.

At any of these four stages, the disease can transition into neurosyphilis and damage the spinal cord and nervous system. If you suspect you’ve contracted syphilis or any other STD, you can contact Rapid STD Testing right away and receive same-day STD testing.

What is Neurosyphilis? Neurosyphilis Causes Explained

How does syphilis affect the spinal cord? Syphilis can damage the nerves and the brain if the infection spreads to the nervous system. In this case, the infected individual would be dealing with neurosyphilis.

Neurosyphilis can occur at any stage, but generally, it’s those who go undiagnosed or without proper medical care that face the highest risk. Likewise, the more life-threatening and debilitating forms of neurosyphilis often take years to develop.

It’s more important than ever to stay informed about your sexual health status. The U.S. has seen an increase in the number of syphilis cases in the last few years, and medical professionals recommend that  sexually active individuals maintain a regular testing schedule. With Rapid STD Testing’s comprehensive 10-panel STD test, you can receive detailed test results in no time. 

What Causes Neurosyphilis?

Syphilis – and neurosyphilis, by extension – spreads due to an infection of the bacterium Treponema pallidum. In most cases, this STD spreads via sexual intercourse and contact with fluid from the sores, also known as chancres. 

However, it’s also possible for pregnant individuals to pass the infection onto their babies during pregnancy. This form of the infection, called congenital syphilis, can be deadly to newborns.

Although there’s been an uptick in syphilis cases in recent years, neurosyphilis is still fairly uncommon. Medical professionals aren’t certain why some patients develop it and others don’t. The only clear connection is that individuals whose syphilis infections go untreated face the greatest risk of the disease spreading to the nervous system.

Additionally, health experts recommend that those who are pregnant or diagnosed with HIV get routine testing for syphilis, as neurosyphilis causes more severe health complications for these individuals. If you need quick, accurate answers, a rapid STD test could help you clarify your next steps.

Types of Neurosyphilis

By far, the most common type of neurosyphilis is asymptomatic. Individuals experiencing this form likely won’t notice any symptoms and may not even be aware that they have an STD, as asymptomatic neurosyphilis often occurs before the initial syphilis infection causes sores.

Meningeal neurosyphilis may occur within a few weeks of exposure, though in some cases, it takes years for symptoms to appear. When they do, individuals may experience nausea, vomiting, neck stiffness, headaches, and vision or hearing loss.

Meningovascular neurosyphilis is a far more severe form of the infection and may be responsible for otherwise unexplained strokes.

General paresis and tabes dorsalis are the two rarest forms of late neurosyphilis, as modern medicine’s ability to detect infection and prevent the spread of STDs decreases the general population’s risk of developing these conditions. 

Diagnosis for Neurosyphilis

Traditionally, doctors diagnose STDs like syphilis using blood tests. However, because neurosyphilis affects the nervous system, diagnosis is a bit more complicated and often requires various tests for the most accurate answer. 

Most commonly, doctors will begin by performing a physical examination, during which they’ll test a patient’s reflexes. Likewise, they’ll try to determine if the individual is experiencing any muscle weakness or loss of coordination. 

Blood tests can often detect infections, but a diagnosis of late-stage neurosyphilis may require a spinal tap. During this process, a doctor will insert a needle in the lower lumbar spine and extract spinal fluid. The doctor can then use the removed fluid to test for infection and determine how much the infection has progressed. 

Another test doctors use to diagnose neurosyphilis is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Though not the most comfortable for claustrophobic patients, this procedure provides doctors with clear, detailed images of the internal organs and the spinal cord. These images can help them accurately assess whether or not a patient has neurosyphilis.

It’s important to note that someone can still develop neurosyphilis even if they aren’t experiencing any clinical manifestations of the infection – but don’t be alarmed. This information isn’t meant to frighten you or create unnecessary anxiety. Instead, it should serve as a reminder that regular STD testing is a critical component to maintaining your health and detecting infections that may lie dormant.

Getting routine STD tests can prevent serious health conditions and catch infections early before they can progress.

Symptoms of Neurosyphilis: Syphilis Back Pain, Mood Changes, and Nerve Damage

Neurosyphilis can cause a wide range of symptoms, and the issues that arise will likely be different from person to person. Because it can develop at any stage of a syphilis infection and the condition can occur in one of five different forms, it’s challenging to predict the exact symptom profile one may experience.

Different patients may suffer from muscle pain and bodily aches, cognitive impairment, and mood changes. Someone who’s developed neurosyphilis may also experience the following issues:

  • Confusion 
  • Irritability
  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Headaches
  • Numbness in the hands and feet 
  • Back pain

It’s important to note that some of these symptoms on their own – such as back pain or irritability – may not necessarily indicate a syphilis infection. Any of these issues individually will likely not be enough to diagnose neurosyphilis.

However, neurosyphilis can also cause an array of symptoms that will usually present more reason for immediate concern. These symptoms can include:

  • Vision and hearing loss
  • Trouble speaking or processing someone else’s speech
  • Tremors in the hands 
  • Incontinence (inability to control the bladder or bowel movements)

If you’ve been searching, “how does syphilis affect the spinal cord?” you may be concerned about the long-term effects of neurosyphilis. Though most people recover from the syphilis infection, those who develop neurosyphilis may unfortunately experience more permanent complications as a result. This is because, like other degenerative diseases, some forms of the infection can damage and degrade the nerves.

Not all of the symptoms listed above will be permanent in those who develop neurosyphilis, but any damage to the nerves may result in life-long health complications. In particular, it’s possible for general paresis to progress to dementia.

If doctors detect an individual’s neurosyphilis early, they’re more likely to return to normal health, but the prognosis is less positive for those who go without treatment for an extended period of time. That’s why it’s so critical that you receive regular STD testing to ensure early detection of serious infections and prevent long-term health complications.

Treatment for Neurosyphilis

Doctors use penicillin, an antibiotic, to treat syphilis. Typically, a standard treatment course lasts 10 to 14 days, and patients can either take it orally or have it administered via injection by a doctor. Depending on the case, medical professionals may also prescribe other antibiotics to go along with the penicillin, and certain patients may require a hospital stay to complete their treatment. 

In the long term, individuals recovering from neurosyphilis will need to get routine blood tests in the six months following their treatment, and then annually for about three years. 

Is Neurosyphilis Reversible?

The prognosis will look different for each individual depending on the severity of their infection. The course of antibiotics will treat all forms of syphilis and halt its progression. Likewise, those who experience the milder effects of neurosyphilis may be able to return to their former, healthier selves. 

However, those who develop more serious forms of neurosyphilis, such as general paresis, meningovascular syphilis, and tabes dorsalis, will likely have lasting health problems. This is because neurosyphilis affects the nervous system, and degradation of the nerves is irreversible.

There is treatment available to manage symptoms caused by damaged nerves, though, and an individual’s doctor may provide them with a personalized health plan to help them cope with these issues day-to-day. Additionally, though some cognitive impairments may be permanent, mood changes and irritability may see improvement with treatment.

To avoid long-term health problems, it’s imperative that you get regular STD screenings. Life-threatening complications due to syphilis are rare these days given the availability of effective treatment, but it’s important to remain vigilant and keep up-to-date with your sexual health.

Take Charge of Your Sexual Health With Rapid STD Testing

Be it due to misinformation or just general anxiety about seeking sexual health care, making informed decisions about STD prevention can be challenging. At Rapid STD Testing, we strive to provide accurate, up-to-date information to help you educate yourself about STDs and determine the best course of action for your situation.

If you’ve been searching “how does syphilis affect the spinal cord?” or wondering about the long-term effects of untreated STDs, check out our blog for a variety of informative posts about the most relevant subjects pertaining to sexual wellness.

Monitoring your status has never been easier. For more information about our services, contact Rapid STD Testing today at 866-872-1888, or use our handy lab finder tool to find a testing location near you.