Nervous System Home > Spinal Meningitis

Spinal meningitis is inflammation of the tissue surrounding the spinal cord and brain. It is most often caused by a bacterial or viral infection. The swelling that results can harm or destroy nerve cells and cause bleeding in the brain. Common symptoms include high fever, stiff neck, headache, and nausea. The disease is usually diagnosed by laboratory tests of spinal fluid obtained with a spinal tap.

What Is Spinal Meningitis?

Spinal meningitis is a condition that causes inflammation and swelling in the lining of the brain and spinal cord. The swelling that results can harm or destroy nerve cells and cause bleeding in the brain.

What Causes It?

The causes of spinal meningitis are usually a bacterial or viral infection (known as bacterial meningitis and viral meningitis, respectively). Most often, the body's immune system is able to contain and defeat an infection. But if the infection passes into the bloodstream and then into the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, it can affect the nerves and travel to the brain and/or surrounding membranes, causing inflammation. This inflammation and swelling causes the symptoms of meningitis.
Other causes of spinal meningitis include:
  • Fungal infection
  • Some types of cancer
  • Traumatic injury to the head or spine
  • Inflammatory disease (such as lupus)
  • Reaction to certain medications or medical treatments.

Symptoms of Spinal Meningitis

Common symptoms of spinal meningitis include:
  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sleepiness or confusion
  • Discomfort looking into bright lights.
In newborns and small infants, the classic symptoms -- headache, fever, and neck stiffness -- may be absent or difficult to detect; the infant may only appear slow or inactive and irritable. The infant may also feed poorly or vomit. As the disease progresses, people of any age may have seizures.
Anyone with possible symptoms should seek immediate medical care by contacting their doctor or going to an emergency room or clinic.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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