Defining the line between hydromyelia and syringomyelia. A differentiation is possible based on electrophysiological and magnetic resonance imaging studies

Acta Neurochir (2010) 152:213–219. DOI 10.1007/s00701-009-0427-x

With the frequent use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), patients with subtle and diffuse symptoms due to small syrinx cavities increasingly present to neurosurgical care. In this respect, a dilated central canal, hydromyelia, must be separated from patients with true syringomyelia with an underlying disorder, as they do not share clinical and radiological features. We hypothesize that a differentiation of these two entities with distinct diagnostic tools is possible.

Methods To describe the entity of hydromyelia, we excluded all patients from the syringomyelia database (n=142) with any obvious cause of a syringomyelia, any objective neurological deficits on clinical examination, pathological results on electrophysiological monitoring (SSEP, MEP, silent periods) or a widening of the spinal cord cavity of more than 6 mm on MRI [routine acquisitions with FLAIR, T1/T2-weighted images, Cine and CISS (constructive interference in steady-state) studies]. Life quality was assessed through SF-36 questionnaires and an individualized questionnaire for the clinical history, pain and alternative therapies.

Results Forty patients (15 males/25 females) matched the criteria of a hydromyelia. With a mean age of 36.7 years (range 11–62), they almost all presented with pain (79%) or dysaesthesia of the limbs, with some having been an incidental finding (10%). Over a follow-up time of 36.9 months (range 6–93) there was no neurological or radiological deterioration.

Conclusions Patients with a hydromyelia do not share clinical or radiological characteristics with patients harbouring a true syringomyelia. As hydromyelia does not represent a disease with an underlying pathology, no clinical or radiological progression has been seen. With sophisticated diagnostic tools to rule out any pathology this subset of patients can be identified.