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Tethered cord syndrome (TCS) is a group of neurological symptoms caused by an abnormal attachment of the spine. The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that normally sit freely in the bony spinal column. This allows the spine to move freely without straining the soft tissue of the spinal cord.
In TCS, the abnormal attachment of the spinal cord to tissue around the spine causes strain on the spinal cord during normal movements. The strain and stretching on the spinal cord can damage the nerves and cause a variety of symptoms.
TCS is usually diagnosed in childhood, but it may not be found until problems occur in adulthood. Earlier treatment of TCS can help reduce the chance of permanent damage.
Congenital TCS is present at birth. It is caused by abnormal development of the spine during pregnancy. It is often associated with other birth defects, such as spina bifida.
Acquired TCS develops after birth. Some causes include:
Certain spinal injuries, infection, or trauma can also cause damage to spine or spinal cord that restricts spinal cord movement.
Factors that may increase the chance of TCS include:
TCS symptoms vary with age, but most often appear in young children. Some may never have symptoms, while others may not have symptoms until adulthood.
Common symptoms in toddlers, adolescents, and adults may include:
Other symptoms in infants include:
Certain skin changes over the lower back in infants may suggest problems with spinal development. The development of the following may occur with spinal development problems:
Adults may have back pain and other symptoms common to lower back disorders, such as spinal stenosis or a herniated disc.
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You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. If structural problems of the spine are suspected imaging tests will be done. TCS is diagnosed with an MRI scan.
Other imaging tests may be:
TCS may affect the nerve going to the bladder. Urodynamic testing may be done to assess problems with the bladder.
Treatment will be based on a number of factors including, symptoms, age, and overall health.
If there are no symptoms, watchful waiting may be advised. The doctor will monitor the condition for any changes, or appearance or worsening of symptoms.
Surgery is the only treatment to release the spinal cord. If surgery isn’t possible or needs to be delayed, medications may help manage symptoms. Medication options to help manage pain include:
Surgery —The goal of surgery is to release the tethered spinal cord, ease symptoms, and prevent further damage. The exact type and extent of surgery will depend on what is causing the TCS and how much the nearby tissue is affected. Surgical steps may include:
More than one surgery may be needed. The spinal cord may also reattach and require a repeat surgery.
Rehabilitation —TCS can cause nerve damage that cannot be reversed. Some symptoms can persist after surgery. Rehabilitation can help develop a plan to manage any remaining challenges. It may include:
Folic acid supplements and proper prenatal care may reduce the risk of spinal defects during pregnancy.
American Association of Neurological Surgeons
Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics
Canadian Neurological Sciences Federation
Caring for Kids—Canadian Paediatric Society
Bui CJ, Tubbs RS, et al. Tethered cord syndrome in children: A review. Neurosurg Focus. 2007;23(2):E2. Available at: http://thejns.org/doi/pdfplus/10.3171/FOC-07/08/E2. Accessed November 27, 2017.
Tethered cord syndrome. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T901069/Tethered-cord-syndrome. Updated December 21, 2016. Accessed November 27, 2017.
Tethered spinal cord causes and treatments. Spinal Stenosis website. Available at: http://spinalstenosis.org/blog/tethered-spinal-cord-treatments. Published September 16, 2013. Accessed November 27, 2017.
Tethered spinal cord syndrome. American Association of Neurological Surgeons website. Available at: http://www.aans.org/Patient%20Information/Conditions%20and%20Treatments/Tethered%20Spinal%20Cord%20Syndrome.aspx. Accessed November 27, 2017.
Treatments for tethered spinal cord in children. Boston Children’s Hospital website. Available at: http://www.childrenshospital.org/conditions-and-treatments/conditions/t/tethered-spinal-cord/treatments. Accessed November 27, 2017.
Last reviewed November 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Laura Lei-Rivera, PT, DPT, GCS Last Updated: 6/2/2016