Radiation myelopathy

Timothy L Sita MD PhD (

Dr. Sita of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.

Tim J Kruser MD (

Dr. Kruser of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine received honorariums from AstraZeneca as a member of a speaker's bureau

Rimas V Lukas MD, editor. (

Dr. Lukas of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine received honorariums from AbbVie as a guest speaker, from NewLink Genetics and Reneuron for consulting work, and from Monetris as an advisory board member.

Originally released December 27, 1996; last updated March 13, 2019; expires March 13, 2022


Radiation myelopathy is a relatively rare, but potentially devastating, complication of therapeutic irradiation. As systemic treatments improve and patients live longer with cancer, the incidence of spinal metastases (cord, CSF, dural, epidural) will continue to increase and necessitate the application of palliative radiation, stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT), and re-irradiation to the spinal cord. Therefore, the incidence of radiation myelopathy will likely increase, and recognition of the subacute and chronic progressive forms of radiation myelopathy will become critical to distinguish from recurrent tumor and permit early intervention. The authors summarize the clinical features, pathophysiology, and management issues for patients with radiation myelopathy.

Key points


• Radiation myelopathy is a rare complication of modern therapeutic irradiation.


• The generally accepted dose and fractionation parameters predicting the risk of radiation myelopathy may not necessarily apply to patients who receive a second course of radiation, concurrent radiation plus chemotherapy, or spinal stereotactic radiosurgery.


• Most patients with chronic progressive radiation myelopathy are permanently neurologically disabled; there is no proven effective therapy.

Historical note and terminology

Spinal cord injury following therapeutic irradiation was first recognized in the mid-1940s, shortly after the introduction of megavoltage radiotherapy (Boden 1948; Greenfield and Stark 1948). The term "radiation myelopathy" encompasses at least 3 distinct clinicopathologic entities: (1) a common, but mild subacute (transient) myelopathy, (2) a less common, but catastrophic chronic progressive (delayed) myelopathy, and (3) an unusual selective lower motor neuron syndrome. Therapeutic irradiation has also been implicated in spinal cord hemorrhage, the induction of spinal cord neoplasms, and development of vascular malformations.

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