Tabes Dorsalis

On this page

What is tabes dorsalis?

Tabes dorsalis is a slow degeneration of the nerve cells and nerve fibers that carry sensory information to the brain. The degenerating nerves are in the dorsal columns of the spinal cord (the portion closest to the back of the body) and carry information that help maintain a person's sense of position. Tabes dorsalis is the result of an untreated syphilis infection. Tabes dorsalis is much more common in men than women, and usually starts in mid-life.

Symptoms, which may not appear for some decades after the initial infection, include:

  • Weakness
  • Diminished reflexes
  • Unsteady gait
  • Progressive degeneration of the joints
  • Episodes of intense pain and disturbed sensation
  • Loss of coordination
  • Personality changes
  • Dementia
  • Deafness
  • Visual impairment
  • Impaired response to light

Penicillin, administered intravenously, is the treatment of choice. Pain can be treated with opiates, valproate, or carbamazepine. Some people also may require physical or rehabilitative therapy to deal with muscle wasting and weakness. Preventive treatment for those who come into sexual contact with an individual with tabes dorsalis is important. If left untreated, tabes dorsalis can lead to paralysis, dementia, and blindness. Existing nerve damage cannot be reversed.

Learn About Clinical Trials
Clinical trials are studies that allow us to learn more about disorders and improve care. They can help connect patients with new and upcoming treatment options.

How can I or my loved one help improve care for people with tabes dorsalis?

Consider participating in a clinical trial so clinicians and scientists can learn more about tabes dorsalis and related disorders. Clinical research uses human volunteers to help researchers learn more about a disorder and perhaps find better ways to safely detect, treat, or prevent disease.

All types of volunteers are needed—those who are healthy or may have an illness or disease—of all different ages, sexes, races, and ethnicities to ensure that study results apply to as many people as possible, and that treatments will be safe and effective for everyone who will use them.

For information about participating in clinical research visit NIH Clinical Research Trials and You. Learn about clinical trials currently looking for people with tabes dorsalis at

Where can I find more information about tabes dorsalis?

The following resources may provide more information:



Order publications from the NINDS Catalog
The NINDS Publication Catalog offers printed materials on neurological disorders for patients, health professionals, and the general public. All materials are free of charge, and a downloadable PDF version is also available for most publications.