Tabes Dorsalis

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1- Introduction

2- Anatomical Overview

3- Causes

4- Treatment 


Tabes dorsalis is a form of neurosyphilis, a neurological complication of untreated syphilis infection. It primarily affects the dorsal columns and dorsal roots of the spinal cord, leading to progressive degeneration. This results in various neurological symptoms, including severe pain, sensory deficits, muscle weakness, and coordination problems. Patients often experience sharp, lightning-like pains, difficulty walking, and loss of reflexes. Tabes dorsalis can also cause bladder and bowel dysfunction. 

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Anatomical Overview

Tabes dorsalis is a degenerative disease affecting the dorsal columns and dorsal roots of the spinal cord, typically as a late consequence of untreated syphilis infection. The dorsal columns are responsible for transmitting sensory information, including proprioception, vibration, and fine touch, from the body to the brain. In tabes dorsalis, the degeneration of these pathways leads to significant sensory deficits. The dorsal roots, which carry sensory information from peripheral nerves to the spinal cord, are also affected, resulting in severe neuropathic pain. The disease primarily impacts the lumbosacral and thoracic regions of the spinal cord, leading to symptoms such as ataxia, or uncoordinated movements, due to loss of proprioception, and areflexia, or absence of reflexes. The condition also affects the bladder and bowel function due to disruption of the sensory pathways involved in autonomic control.


  • Primary Syphilis: This stage is characterized by the appearance of a painless sore (chancre) at the site of infection, typically the genital area, mouth, or rectum. The sore heals on its own within a few weeks.

  • Secondary Syphilis: If untreated, syphilis progresses to this stage, where the bacterium spreads through the bloodstream, causing a skin rash, mucous membrane lesions, and flu-like symptoms. This stage can resolve without treatment, but the infection remains in the body.

  • Latent Syphilis: In this stage, there are no symptoms, but the bacterium remains in the body. Latent syphilis can last for years.

  • Tertiary Syphilis: If syphilis remains untreated, it can progress to tertiary syphilis, which can occur years after the initial infection. This stage can affect multiple organs, including the heart, brain, and nervous system, leading to serious complications.

  • Neurosyphilis: This occurs when Treponema pallidum invades the central nervous system. Neurosyphilis can occur at any stage of syphilis but is most severe in the late stages.


  • Antibiotic Therapy:

    • Penicillin: The standard treatment for syphilis, including tabes dorsalis, is high-dose intravenous penicillin. This antibiotic effectively kills the Treponema pallidum bacterium, preventing further progression of the disease. The typical regimen involves intravenous penicillin G, administered every 4 hours for 10 to 14 days.
    • Alternative Antibiotics: For patients allergic to penicillin, alternative antibiotics such as doxycycline or ceftriaxone may be used, although penicillin desensitization is often preferred to ensure the most effective treatment.
  • Symptomatic Management:

    • Pain Management: Neuropathic pain associated with tabes dorsalis can be severe and challenging to manage. Medications such as anticonvulsants (e.g., gabapentin, pregabalin) and antidepressants (e.g., amitriptyline, duloxetine) are commonly used to alleviate neuropathic pain. In some cases, opioids may be necessary for pain control.
    • Physical Therapy: Physical therapy can help improve strength, coordination, and mobility. Specific exercises and rehabilitation techniques can assist in managing ataxia and gait disturbances.
    • Occupational Therapy: Occupational therapy can aid patients in adapting to their sensory deficits and improving their ability to perform daily activities.
    • Bladder and Bowel Management: For patients with bladder and bowel dysfunction, strategies such as timed voiding, catheterization, and bowel management programs may be necessary.
  • Regular Monitoring:

    • Patients treated for neurosyphilis, including tabes dorsalis, require regular follow-up to monitor the response to treatment and ensure that the infection has been eradicated. This may involve repeated cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis and clinical evaluations.
  • Addressing Complications:

    • Any complications arising from tabes dorsalis, such as ulcers or joint damage due to sensory deficits, need to be addressed promptly. Preventive measures and appropriate interventions are crucial to managing these complications.
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