Cauda equina is a rare syndrome that can lead to paralysis if left untreated. Most cases of paralysis are due to catastrophic injuries, such as sustained blows to the head or neck, car accidents, or athletic injuries. But cauda equina syndrome is a secondary condition which results from a disease or infection of the cauda equina spinal nerves.
Cauda equina is Latin for “horse's tail,” and the term refers to a bundle of nerve fibers and nerve roots located at the base of the spine. The cauda equina extend from the second lumbar nerve, through the fifth sacral nerve, and into the coccygeal nerve.
All nerves associated with the cauda equina originate in the spinal cord's conus medullaris. The cauda equina play a key role in lower body movement and sensation, including walking, elimination, bladder function, sexual function, and most other movements of the legs and lower body.
Cauda equina syndrome is not a disease unto itself, but rather a symptom of another condition. Cauda equina syndrome occurs when something compresses the cauda equina nerves or nerve roots. The result is typically an immediate decline in functioning, accompanied by numbness and potentially even paralysis.
Cauda equina syndrome is always a medical emergency. It is akin to a fall on the back or neck, due to its ability to lead to permanent paralysis if left untreated.
The symptoms of cauda equina syndrome vary in severity, but the most common symptoms include:
A number of conditions predispose you to cauda equina syndrome, so knowing whether you're at risk can help you avoid suffering from this dangerous and life-altering syndrome. Any serious spinal cord injury or back health problem increases your risk, but the following risk factors are especially problematic:
If you suffer from pain in this region, experience numbness or tingling, or experience more than low-level chronic back pain, consult your doctor to ensure you're not suffering from a disease that puts you at risk of cauda equina syndrome.
There is no single treatment for cauda equina syndrome, since cauda equina is not a disorder unto itself, but the product of another medical condition. Instead, your doctor may perform blood tests, spinal imaging, and a differential diagnosis to determine the source of your cauda equina syndrome. Depending upon your test results, treatment may include:
If your cauda equina syndrome leads to paralysis, you may have a lengthy hospital stay, followed by intensive physical therapy, the use of assistive devices, and ongoing evaluation of your treatment options.
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