How is acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM) treated?

ADEM is a rare disease, and so there are no well-designed clinical trials comparing one treatment with placebo, or one treatment with another. Everything we know about treatment in ADEM comes from small published series of cases, and there are no guidelines for treatment of ADEM yet.

At this time, intravenous methyl-prednisolone (for instance, Solu-Medrol®) or other steroid medications are the front-line treatment for ADEM. Usually these medications are given over a five- to seven-day course, followed by a tapering dose of oral steroids. The aim is to reduce inflammation and speed recovery from the disease.

Patients on steroids need to be monitored for increased blood glucose, low potassium, and sleep disturbance. There may be mood changes (irritability, crying, anxiety) when people are on steroid therapy. Other short-term complications of steroid therapy include weight gain, flushed cheeks, facial swelling, and a metallic taste (when using IV Solu-Medrol®).

If a patient does not respond to IV methylprednisolone, the next line of treatment may be intravenous immune globulin (IVIG). This is an intravenous treatment using a blood product which has been shown to reduce the activity in certain immune diseases, including ADEM. Treatment is usually given for a few hours daily over five days for ADEM. IVIG has the same risks as any blood product (allergic reaction, infection); it also sometimes causes shortness of breath due to fluid overload. Rarely, patients lack an antibody important to the system and may react more strongly to IVIG.

Another approach to treatment is a process called plasmapheresis. This is a treatment in which the blood is circulated through a machine that withdraws components of the immune system from the circulation, reducing immune activity. It is usually a process which takes a few hours and is done every other day for 10 to 14 days, often as part of a hospital stay. It may require the placement of a central venous catheter to allow for blood to be removed from the system rapidly. Risks of plasmapheresis include discomfort from taking blood, sometimes a tendency to bleed due to a reduction in platelets, and infections.

In very severe cases, chemotherapy may be necessary. Either cyclophosphamide or mitoxantrone can be used, but only if less toxic therapies are not effective.

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