Paraneoplastic Syndromes of the Nervous System

What is Paraneoplastic Syndromes of the Nervous System?

Paraneoplastic Syndromes of the Nervous System is an assemblage of disorders that can strike those with cancer. It occurs when the immune system attacks portions of the brain, spinal cord and the outlying muscles and nerves. It is a rare disorder that often precedes a cancer diagnosis.

It strikes those with cancer of the blood, lungs, ovary and the breast more often than those with other types of cancer. It can cause irreparable and devastating damage to the nervous system.

What are the Symptoms of Paraneoplastic Syndromes of the Nervous System?

Signs of paraneoplastic syndromes of the nervous system vary according to the parts of the body that are afflicted. Symptoms may include:

  • Unsteadiness
  • Walking difficulties
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle atrophy and coordination problems
  • Fine motor skill difficulties
  • Problems swallowing
  • Slurring of speech
  • Impaired memory and cognitive skills
  • Vision disturbances
  • Sleep problems
  • Seizures
  • Sensory impairment
  • Unintentional movements

Paraneoplastic Syndromes of the Nervous System Causes

Paraneoplastic syndromes occur when cancer-fighting antibodies or white blood cells mistakenly attack the normal cells in the nervous system. In theory, the antibodies are supposed to attack only the cancerous cells while ignoring the healthy cells. However, that is not necessarily the case with paraneoplastic syndromes. Instead, they make it difficult for the body to remain strong and healthy while fighting cancer. As a result, it causes several problems with muscle movement, sensory perception, and memory. It is important to note that cancer does not cause paraneoplastic syndromes. In fact, the term, “paraneoplastic”, indicates that the causes of these syndromes have nothing to do with the cancerous tumor but rather the immunological reactions to it. Complications, like infections and treatment side effects, also do not contribute to the ailments. While any cancer may put patients at risk of paraneoplastic syndromes, the patients who are at the most risk are the ones suffering from breast, lung, ovarian, and lymphatic cancer.

How is Paraneoplastic Syndromes of the Nervous System Treated?

Cancer treatment and immune system therapy can improve or correct this type of nervous system injury. Treatment for paraneoplastic syndromes of the nervous system may include:

  • Oral medications to prevent inflammation and decrease white blood cell production
  • Seizure prevention medication
  • Medication to boost chemical nerve cell to muscle transmitters
  • Plasma exchange therapy
  • Immunoglobulin therapy
  • Physical therapy to regain muscle function
  • Speech therapy for swallowing and speaking problems

Paraneoplastic Syndromes of the Nervous System Prevention

Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent paraneoplastic syndromes from occurring at all, although cancer treatment may prevent its further damage to the body. There is also no cure. The only other option to fight this disease is the treatment. While providers prescribe the drugs and treatment, like chemotherapy, to fight cancer itself, they also prescribe other medications that specifically fight paraneoplastic syndromes. One common treatment is plasmapheresis. It may ease the symptoms by eliminating the antibodies from the blood and replacing the blood plasma. Immunosuppressants and corticosteroids are also prescribed to suppress the autoimmune response. Because the syndromes affect the patient’s ability to speak and move, speech therapy and physical therapy are prescribed as supplements to the treatment program and may restore some of the verbal and physical functions to normalcy.

Last Reviewed:
October 07, 2016
Last Updated:
December 20, 2017
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