Tabes dorsalis is a complication of untreated syphilis that involves muscle weakness and abnormal sensations.
Tabes dorsalis is a form of neurosyphilis, which is a complication of late stage syphilis infection. Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is spread sexually.
When syphilis is untreated, the bacteria damages the spinal cord and peripheral nervous tissue. This leads to the symptoms of tabes dorsalis.
Tabes dorsalis is now very rare because syphilis is usually treated early in the disease.
Symptoms of tabes dorsalis are caused by damage to the nervous system. Symptoms include any of the following:
The health care provider will perform a physical exam, focusing on the nervous system.
If syphilis infection is suspected, tests may include the following:
If the serum VDRL or serum RPR test is positive, one of the following tests will be needed to confirm the diagnosis:
The goals of treatment are to cure the infection and slow the disease. Treating the infection helps prevent new nerve damage and may reduce symptoms. Treatment does not reverse existing nerve damage.
Medicines likely to be given include:
Symptoms of existing nervous system damage need to be treated. People who are unable to eat, dress themselves, or take care of themselves may need help. Rehabilitation, physical therapy, and occupational therapy may help with muscle weakness.
Left untreated, tabes dorsalis may lead to disability.
Complications may include:
Call your provider if you have:
Proper treatment and follow-up of syphilis infections reduces the risk of developing tabes dorsalis.
If you are sexually active, practice safer sex and always use a condom.
All pregnant women should be screened for syphilis.
Reviewed By: Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.