Cauda equina syndrome (CES) is compression of the nerve roots at the base of the spinal cord. The nerve roots (known as the cauda equine) control the sensation and function of the bladder, bowel, sexual organs, and legs. It is rare.
Care is needed right away to avoid long-term damage.
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The most common cause is a herniated disc. Discs are semi-soft tissue between the bones (vertebrae) of the spine. The discs act as the spine’s shock absorbers. A disc that pushes into the spinal canal can press against the bundle of nerves and cause CES.
Other causes may be:
- Cancer that spreads from another part of the body
- Infection, such as meningitis
- Lumbar spinal stenosis —a narrowing of the spinal canal
- Blood clots or a buildup of blood that pushes on the spinal canal
- Inflammatory health problems, such as ankylosing spondylitis
- Trauma, such as from a car accident, gunshot, or knife wound
- Complications from surgery, spinal anesthesia, or spinal manipulation methods (less common)
Things that may raise the risk of this problem are:
- A herniated disc or past surgery to treat one
- Lumbar spinal stenosis
CES may cause:
- Severe low back pain
- Problems passing or controlling urine or stool
- Numbness or tingling in the crotch
- Weakness in the legs
- Problems walking, such as dragging a foot
- Sexual problems, not being able to maintain an erection (in men)
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will look for signs of nerve problems. A rectal exam may be done to check anal function.
Images may be taken of the spine and nearby structures. This can be done with:
Underlying causes will need to be treated. Emergency care may also be needed. Choices are:
Surgery may be done to ease compression on the nerves. Choices are:
- Laminectomy —to remove a portion of a vertebra, called the lamina
- Discectomy —to remove part of an intervertebral disc that is putting pressure on the spinal cord or nerve root
Symptoms may be managed with medicines, such as:
- Pain relievers
- Vasodilators to widen blood vessels
- Steroids to ease swelling
Therapy may be needed to regain lost skills. Options are:
- Physical therapy—to improve movement
- Occupational therapy—to help with daily tasks and self care
- Incontinence care—to manage lost bladder control
Cauda Equina Syndrome Resource Center http://www.caudaequina.org
United Spinal Association http://www.spinalcord.org
Canadian/American Spinal Research Organizations http://www.csro.com
Spinal Cord Injury Canada http://sci-can.ca
Bydon M, Lin JA, et al. Time to surgery and outcomes in cauda equina syndrome: an analysis of 45 cases. World Neurosurg. 2016;87:110-115.
Cauda equina syndrome. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Ortho Info website. Available at: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00362. Accessed January 14, 2021.
Cauda equina syndrome. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/cauda-equina-syndrome. Accessed January 14, 2021.
- Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Rimas Lukas, MD
- Review Date: 12/2020
- Update Date: 01/14/2021