Cauda equina syndrome (CES) is 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.
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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: Accident that crushes the spine, such as a car accident or fallPenetrating injury, such as a knife or gunshot wound
Arthritis, such as
spinal anesthesiaMass lesion, such as a blood clot
cancerSide effect of certain medications
Factors that may increase your risk of developing CES include: History of back problems, such as lumbar spinal stenosisDegenerative disk disease
Birth defects, such as a narrow spinal canal or
spina bifidaHemorrhages affecting the spinal cordArteriovenous malformationSpinal surgery or spinal anesthesiaLesion or tumor affecting the spinal bones, spinal nerve roots, or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)Infection affecting the spineManipulation of the lower back—rarely
Symptoms may include:
low back painNumbness or tingling in the crotch area known as saddle anesthesia/paresthesiaInability to urinate, or to hold urine or fecesInability to walk or dragging of footWeakness, loss of sensation, or pain in one or both legs
Sexual dysfunction; in men, the
inability to maintain an erection
You will be asked 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: MRI scanCT scanMyelogram
Your muscle activity may be measured. This can be done with
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include the following:
—a surgical procedure to remove a portion of a vertebra, called the lamina
—a surgical procedure to remove part of an intervertebral disk that is putting pressure on the spinal cord or nerve root
—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 walkingProblems with bladder and bowelsSexual dysfunctionParalysis
Your follow-up care may involve working with a: Physical therapistOccupational therapistNeurologist—doctor who specializes in the nervous systemIncontinence specialist—if you have lost bladder control
Your doctor may prescribe medication for: PainBladder and bowel difficulties
There is no way to prevent CES.
Cauda equina syndrome. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00362. Updated March 2014. Accessed November 20, 2014.
Cauda equina syndrome. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated August 20, 2014. Accessed November 20, 2014.
Last reviewed December 2014 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.
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