Cauda Equina Syndrome
(CES; Compression of Spinal Nerve Roots; Syndrome, Cauda Equina; Spinal Nerve Roots, Compression)
Cauda equina syndrome (CES) occurs when the nerve roots at the base of the spinal cord are compressed. Known as the cauda equina, this bundle of nerves is responsible for the sensation and function of the bladder, bowel, sexual organs, and legs. CES is a medical emergency. If treatment is not started to relieve pressure on the nerves, function below the waist may be lost.
A common cause of CES is injury of a spinal disk on the nerve roots. A spinal disk is a semi-soft mass of tissue between the bones of the spine. These bones are known as the vertebrae. The disks act as the spine’s shock absorbers. When a disk spills out into the spinal canal, it can press against the bundle of nerves, causing CES. This syndrome may also be caused by:
Factors that may increase your risk of developing CES include:
- History of back problems, such as lumbar spinal stenosis
- Degenerative disk disease
- Birth defects, such as a narrow spinal canal or spina bifida
- Hemorrhages affecting the spinal cord
- Arteriovenous malformation
- Spinal surgery or spinal anesthesia
- Lesion or tumor affecting the spinal bones, spinal nerve roots, or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)
- Infection affecting the spine
- Manipulation of the lower back—rarely
Symptoms may include:
- Severe low back pain
- Numbness or tingling in the crotch area known as saddle anesthesia/paresthesia
- Inability to urinate, or to hold urine or feces
- Inability to walk or dragging of foot
- Weakness, loss of sensation, or pain in one or both legs
- Sexual dysfunction; in men, the inability to maintain an erection
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. A neurological exam, which includes testing reflexes, vision, mental status, and strength, may also be done. A rectal exam may be done to assess sphincter function.
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:
Your muscle activity may be measured. This can be done with electromyography.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include the following:
- Surgery options:
- Radiation therapy—If CES is due to cancer, radiation therapy may be an option.
Your doctor may also treat the underlying cause of CES.
The long-term effects of CES can range from mild to severe. Problems may include:
- Difficulty walking
- Problems with bladder and bowels
- Sexual dysfunction
Your follow-up care may involve working with a:
- Physical therapist
- Occupational therapist
- Incontinence specialist—if you have lost bladder control
There is no way to prevent CES.
Cauda Equina Syndrome Resource Center
National Spinal Cord Injury Association
Canadian Spinal Research Organization
Spinal Cord Injury Canada
Cauda equina syndrome. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00362. Updated October 2007. Accessed November 16, 2013.
Cauda equina syndrome. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php. Updated June 8, 2013. Accessed November 16, 2013.
Last reviewed November 2013 by Rimas Lukas, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.