Tabes dorsalis: Slowly progressive degeneration of the spinal cord that occurs in the tertiary (third) phase of syphilis a decade or more after originally contracting the infection. Among the terrible features of tabes dorsalis are lancinating lightning-like pain, ataxia (wobbliness), deterioration of the nerves to the eyes (the optic nerves) leading to blindness, urinary incontinence, loss of the sense of position, and degeneration of the joints (Charcot's joints).
Tabes is the Latin word for decay. The term tabes dorsalis was devised in 1836 when the cause of the condition was thought to be wastage of the dorsal (posterior) columns of the spinal cord, well before it was recognized as part of late syphilis.
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