Cauda Equina Syndrome
(CES; Compression of Spinal Nerve Roots; Syndrome, Cauda Equina; Spinal Nerve Roots, Compression)
Pronounced: COW-da Ee-KWI-nah
Cauda equina syndrome (CES) occurs when the nerve roots at the base of the spinal cord are compressed. Known as the cauda equina (horse's tail in Latin), this bundle of nerves governs the sensation and function of the bladder, bowel, sexual organs, and legs. CES is a medical emergency. If surgery is not done right away to relieve pressure on the nerves, function below the waist may be lost.
A common cause of CES is rupture of a spinal disk. A spinal disk is a semi-soft mass of tissue that rests 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 ruptures and spills out into the spinal canal, it can press against the bundle of nerves, causing CES. This syndrome may be caused by:
These factors increase your chance of developing CES. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:
- History of back problems (eg, lumbar spinal stenosis)
- Degenerative disk disease
If you have any of these symptoms do not assume it is due to CES. These symptoms may be caused by other conditions. Tell your doctor right away if you have any of these:
- Severe low back pain
CES requires urgent surgery. If you have any of the above symptoms, get emergency care.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. He will also do a physical exam. He may perform a neurological exam, which includes testing reflexes, vision, mental status, and strength. A rectal exam may be done to assess sphincter function.
Your doctor may order these tests:
If have CES, you will need surgery right away.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include the following:
Surgery is required to treat CES. Your doctor will try to reverse the damage. If you do not have surgery, you can have permanent damage. You can be left paralyzed and unable to control your bladder and bowels.
Surgery may involve:
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)
Your doctor may prescribe medication for:
- Bladder and bowel difficulties
Cauda Equina Syndrome Resource Center
National Spinal Cord Injury Association
Canadian & American Spinal Research Organization
Spinal Injury Foundation
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Your orthopedic connection. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons website. Available at: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00362&return_link=0 . Accessed October 30, 2008.
Last reviewed December 2008 by
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.
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