Tethered spinal cord syndrome in adults in the MRI era: recognition, pathology, and long-term objective outcomes

J Neurosurg Spine 34:942–954, 2021

Tethered cord syndrome (TCS) has been well described in pediatric patients. Many recent reports of TCS in adult patients have grouped retethering patients with newly diagnosed ones without separately analyzing each entity and outcome. The authors reviewed their experience of newly diagnosed adult TCS patients to identify and explore TCS misdiagnosis, recognition, subtype pathology, and individual objective outcomes.

METHODS This study included 24 adult patients (20 female and 4 male) who fit the criteria of being newly diagnosed and aged 20 years and older (age range 20–77 years). Preexisting dermal sinus was present in 6 patients, hypertrichosis in 5, skin tag/cleft/dimple and fatty subcutaneous masses in 5, scoliosis in 2, and neurological abnormalities in 4 patients. The pathology consisted of TCS with taut filum in 8 patients, conus lipoma with TCS in 7, diastematomyelia in 7, and cervical cord tethering in 2 patients. Of the 24 study patients, nondermatomal low-back or perineal pain occurred in 19 patients, bladder dysfunction in 21, and motor, sensory, and reflex abnormalities in 21 patients. Aggravating factors were repeated stretching, multiple pregnancies, heavy lifting, and repeated bending. Urological evaluation included bladder capacity, emptying, postvoid residuals, detrusor function, pelvic floor electromyography (EMG), bladder sensitivity, and sphincter EMG, which were repeated at 6 months and 1 year postoperatively. The follow-up was 1 to 30 years. Detailed postoperative neurological findings and separate patient outcome evaluations were recorded. Four of the 24 patients did not have an operation.

RESULTS Resolution of pain occurred in 16 of the 19 patients reporting low-back or perineal pain. Motor and sensory complaints resolved in 17 of 20 patients. Regarding bladder dysfunction, in the 20 patients with available data, bladder function returned to normal in 12 patients, improved in 3 patients, and was unchanged in 5 patients. If the symptom duration was less than 6–8 months, there was recovery of all parameters of pain, bladder dysfunction, and neurological deficit, and recovery from hyperreflexia matched that from neurological deficit. Fifteen patients were employed preoperatively and returned to work, and an additional 3 others who were unable to work preoperatively were able to do so postoperatively.

CONCLUSIONS Most adults with newly diagnosed TCS have unrecognized neurocutaneous abnormalities and neurological deficits. The triad of nondermatomal sacral or perineal pain, bladder dysfunction, and neurological deficit should not be confused with hip or degenerative lumbosacral disease. Addressing the primary pathology often leads to successful results.