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Overview of Cauda Equina Syndrome

written by: R. Elizabeth C. Kitchen • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 6/22/2009

This article focuses on cauda equina syndrome. It discusses the symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment of cauda equina syndrome.

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    Hundreds of different things can cause back pain. Common causes of back pain include poor muscle tone and strength, herniated spinal discs and muscle strains. Cauda equina Syndrome is a far less common cause of back pain and it is considered a medical emergency. Cauda equina Syndome occurs when the spinal canal becomes significantly narrow. As the spinal canal narrows the cauda equina, or the bundle of nerves below the spine, become compressed.

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    Symptoms and Causes of Cauda Equina Syndrome

    The symptoms of cauda equina syndrome are not unique and are very similar to several other spinal disorders so this condition is often difficult to diagnose. The most common symptoms of cauda equina syndrome include lower back pain, a decrease or complete loss of lower extremity reflexes, pain in the legs (typically just one leg), Lower extremity weakness, loss of sensation in the lower extremities, buttock pain, difficulty having bladder or bowel movements, loss of control over bladder or bowel and numbness in the groin. If these symptoms appear suddenly, it is important to seek immediate medical attention.

    Several things can cause cauda equina syndrome. Trauma such as automobile accidents, sports injuries and bad falls can cause cauda equina syndrome, especially if the lower back sustained trauma. Another disorder than can cause cauda equina syndrome is herniated spinal discs, specifically lumbar spinal discs. Other causes of this condition include inflammatory spinal conditions, spinal tumors and infections of the spine. In some cases, medical mistakes can cause cauda equina syndrome.

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    Diagnosing Cauda Equina Syndrome

    When diagnosing cauda equina syndrome a doctor will assess a patients symptoms and try to determine whether or not the patient has suffered trauma or has any of the underlying conditions that could cause this condition. Once this has been done they will often perform diagnostic imaging tests such as general x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), CT scan with or without contrast, ultrasounds of the lumbar region or a lumbar myelogram.

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    Treating Cauda Equina Syndrome

    Once cauda equina syndrome is confirmed surgery will be performed immediately. For the best possible outcome patients need to have surgery within 48 hours after symptoms occur. In most cases a lumbar decompression surgery will be performed. This type of surgery relieves nerve compression by creating more space for them in the spinal canal. After surgery patients will need to continue to undergo treatment. Medications and physical therapy are the two most common forms of treatment for cauda equina syndrome. If a tumor was the underlying cause then additional surgery to remove the tumor, radiation and chemotherapy may be needed. If a herniated disc was the underlying cause then additional surgery to remove the disc may be needed. Common medications used to treat cauda equina syndrome include analgesics, anti-inflammatory medications and corticosteroids. If an infection was the underlying cause then antibiotics may also be necessary.

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    Resources

    WebMD. (2009). Cauda Equina Syndrome. Retrieved on June 21, 2009 from Website: http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/cauda-equina-syndrome