Acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) is a rare but serious neurologic disease. It can cause sudden arm or leg weakness and a loss of muscle tone and reflexes. AFM mostly affects children. Learn about its symptoms and possible causes.
What is acute flaccid myelitis (AFM)?
Acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) is a neurologic disease. It is rare, but serious. It affects an area of the spinal cord called gray matter. This can cause the muscles and reflexes in the body to become weak. Because of these symptoms, some people call AFM a “polio-like” illness.
Researchers are trying to better understand AFM. They are working to learn more about what causes it and how to treat it.
What causes acute flaccid myelitis (AFM)?
The cause of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) is unknown. Researchers think that viruses likely play a role. In recent cases, most people had a mild respiratory illness or fever (like you would get from a viral infection) before they got AFM.
Who is at risk for acute flaccid myelitis (AFM)?
Anyone can get AFM, but most of the recent cases have been in children.
What are the symptoms of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM)?
Most people with AFM will suddenly have
- Arm or leg weakness
- A loss of muscle tone and reflexes
Some people also have other symptoms, including
- Facial drooping/weakness
- Trouble moving the eyes
- Drooping eyelids
- Trouble swallowing
- Slurred speech
Sometimes AFM can weaken the muscles that you need for breathing. This can lead to respiratory failure, which is very serious. If you get respiratory failure, you may need to use a ventilator (breathing machine) to help you breathe.
If you or your child develops any of these symptoms, you should get medical care right away.
How is acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) diagnosed?
AFM causes many of the same symptoms as other neurologic diseases, such as transverse myelitis and Guillain-Barre syndrome. This can make it difficult to diagnose. To make a diagnosis, a doctor
- Will do a neurologic exam, including looking at where there is weakness, poor muscle tone, and decreased reflexes
- Will look at pictures of the spinal cord and brain. This may include images from an MRI.
- May do lab tests on the cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid around the brain and spinal cord)
- May check nerve speed (nerve conduction velocity) and the response of muscles to the messages from the nerves (electromyography)
It is important that the tests are done as soon as possible after the symptoms start.
What are the treatments for acute flaccid myelitis (AFM)?
There is no specific treatment for AFM. A doctor who specializes in treating brain and spinal cord illnesses (neurologist) may recommend treatments for specific symptoms. For example, physical and/or occupational therapy may help with arm or leg weakness. Researchers do not know the long-term outcomes of people with AFM.
Can acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) be prevented?
Since the cause of AFM is unknown, there is no there is no specific way to prevent it. However, viruses may play a role in AFM, and you can take steps to help prevent getting or spreading viral infections by
- Washing hands often with soap and water
- Avoiding touching your face with unwashed hands
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
- Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that you frequently touch, including toys
- Covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or upper shirt sleeve, not hands
- Staying home when sick
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention