updated 2/1/2010 1:55:33 PM ET 2010-02-01T18:55:33

Greg Sapp woke up one morning to a strange, painful tingling in his toes.

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The next day, the sensation had spread to his feet. On day three, it had moved up his legs.

By day four, the intense pain, like a limb being "asleep" had overtaken his body from the waist down.

"I basically lost feelings in my legs," said Sapp, a 36-year-old former marathon runner. "The only thing I felt were my nerves. It felt like my legs were on fire."

Almost two years ago, a rare neurological disorder suddenly attacked Sapp's spinal cord leaving his legs temporarily paralyzed.

The mysterious condition, called transverse myelitis, left Sapp unable to walk for months. It cost him his job and resulted in him becoming addicted to painkillers for a time.

"It just baffles me that I'm a person who is healthy and this happened to me," he said. "I don't understand it."

Sapp has always believed that he had a "pretty healthy lifestyle."

While serving seven years in the U.S. Army, the Waycross native was an avid runner. He completed a number of 10K races and a couple of marathons, including the popular Big Sur International Marathon in California.

In 2003, he moved from Atlanta back to Waycross to be closer to family. He got a job at a local mattress company as a quilt panel machine operator.

Tingling sensations heralded paralysis
Then, in February 2008, Sapp started having migraines. A few days later, the tingling sensations started in his feet.

"I went from walking to not walking" in a matter of days, he said.

Sapp's parents took him to the nearest hospital where physicians were stumped by his symptoms.

They soon decided to have him transferred to St. Joseph's/Candler Health System in Savannah.

There, Dr. Julia Mikell recognized his symptoms as a typical presentation of transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disorder caused by inflammation of a portion of the spinal cord.

Researchers don't know what causes the condition. People with compromised immunity seem to be at a slightly higher risk, "but perfectly normal people get it," Mikell said.

The Savannah neurologist sees about one case of transverse myelitis every other year.

"Typically, it hits you over three, four or five days and then that's kind of it," Mikell said. "And then you start getting better, hopefully."

The effects can range from being "just uncomfortable" to completely paralyzed, she said. They can last for days, weeks or years.

Treatment often focuses on reducing muscle inflammation with steroids and on physical and occupational therapy.

Sapp spent two weeks in the hospital and the next three-and-a-half months using a wheelchair. With physical therapy, he graduated to a cane.

Building the strength to walk again was tough, Sapp said. But he grows frustrated that he still isn't back to his old self.

"Whether I'll ever be the way I was before, I've pretty much lost hope in that," he said.

Web site draws hundreds of sufferers
Still, Sapp considers himself one of the lucky ones.

Shortly after his diagnosis, he launched a Web site for people who have experienced transverse myelitis.

More than 400 people have registered and participated in the online forum, including one woman from Richmond Hill, he said.

Many share stories of how the disease manifested in them or a loved one.

Some say their symptoms emerged just days or weeks after receiving a flu shot. Vaccines and other stimulants to the immune system are possible triggers of transverse myelitis, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Some affected by the disorder have described suffering complete paralysis that requires assistance in breathing.

One member of the forum, identified as "Michael McP," described a sensation of "painful electrical shocks" every time he tilts his head downward.

Through it all, Sapp said some good things have come from his bout with transverse myelitis.

After he began walking again, Sapp began pursuing a psychology degree at Georgia Southern University. He hopes someday to work with soldiers returning from war.

Sapp lives on campus and, until recently, used a cane to walk to and from classes.

However, new pain in his right foot has raised his concerns that he could be overextending himself.

Wheelchair for the future?
Sapp recently applied for a new wheelchair through the Veteran's Administration to use on campus.

Although Sapp sees a return to the wheelchair as a setback for now, he tries to focus on the positive.

At least it's not an electric wheelchair.

"I'm more of a physical person," he said.

"As long as I've got perfectly working arms, I'll push myself."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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