Central pontine myelinolysis is brain cell dysfunction caused by the destruction of the layer (myelin sheath) covering nerve cells in the brainstem (pons).
Osmotic demyelination syndrome
The destruction of the myelin sheath that covers nerve cells prevents signals from being properly transmitted in the nerve. This decreases the nerve's ability to communicate with other cells.
The most common cause of central pontine myelinolysis is a quick rise in the body's sodium levels. This most often occurs when someone is being treated for low blood levels of sodium (hyponatremia) and the levels rise too fast. It also can occasionally occur when high levels of sodium in the body (hypernatremia) are corrected too quickly.
This condition does not occur on its own. It is a complication of treatment for other conditions or from the other conditions themselves.
An examination may show:
A head MRI scan may reveal a problem in the brainstem (pons). This is the main diagnostic test.
Other tests may include:
This is an emergency disorder. You will need to go to a hospital for diagnosis and treatment. However, most people with this condition are already in the hospital for another condition.
There is no known cure for central pontine myelinolysis. Treatment is focused on relieving symptoms.
Physical therapy may help maintain muscle strength, mobility, and function in weakened arms and legs.
The nerve damage caused by central pontine myelinolysis is usually long-lasting. The disorder can cause serious long-term (chronic) disability.
There is no real guideline on when to seek medical attention, because this condition is rare in the general community.
Gradual, controlled treatment of low sodium levels may reduce the risk of nerve damage in the pons. Being aware of how some medications can change sodium levels can prevent these levels from changing too quickly.
Skorecki K, Ausiello D. Disorders of sodium and water homeostasis. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 117.