Tethered Spinal Cord Syndrome – Risk Factors, Prognosis And More

Tethered spinal cord syndrome refers to a group of neurological defects that affects the spinal cord.  Although it may begin as a benign condition it can quickly become a serious problem.

Tethered Spinal Cord Syndrome Causes, Incidence, and Risk Factors

This condition is, at its most basic level, the attachment of various tissues to the base spinal cord.  These tissues will limit the movement and development of the spinal cord over time and in many cases cause an abnormal stretching of the cord as a child grows.

  • The condition gets progressively worse as the child grows.
  • It is very rare and affects less than two hundred thousand people in America.
  • Like most birth defects, the exact causes of the condition are not known.
  • It appears to be linked to the development of the neural tube and is closely linked with spina bifida.

Tethered Spinal Cord Syndrome Symptoms

A number of different symptoms may accompany tethered spinal cord syndrome, presenting themselves at different times through the child’s growth.  Some of these symptoms include:

  • Hairy patches along the lower back
  • Lesions around the lower back
  • Dimples or fatty deposits such as tumors
  • Weakness in the legs
  • Bladder and bowel incontinence
  • Sensory problems
  • Lower back pains
  • Scoliosis
  • Deformities of the foot
  • Motor control problems

In some cases symptoms may not present themselves until adolescence or even adulthood.

Tethered Spinal Cord Syndrome Diagnosis

Various tests can be run to help confirm a diagnosis of tethered spinal cord syndrome.

  • MRI – A magnetic resonance imaging scan is the most common way to test for this disease and will uncover any deformities in or around the spinal cord.
  • Ultrasound – A simple ultrasound can generally show images of the spinal cord.
  • Myleogram – This test involves the injection of a contrasting dye into the spinal column followed by a series of x-rays.  This can help show pressure on the spine or the nerves connected to it, pressure caused by a tethered spinal cord.
  • CT Scan – This test is often used with a myleogram to help confirm the diagnosis.


It is important that treatment be undertaken as soon as possible before irreversible complications such as neurological problems develop.  Surgery is the only real course of treatment, although medications may be given to help alleviate the symptoms and the pain.

  • Surgery will be done to free the spinal cord from the tissues binding it.
  • Children who have become fully grown and experience only minor symptoms from their tethered spinal cord syndrome may be monitored to avoid the delicate surgery.  It is more likely to have surgery if symptoms are severe.
  • Young children and infants will likely have the surgery as soon as possible, before the condition causes any complications or long term damage.


When treated with surgery early, recovery is generally complete and gives the child a full, normal life.  Those who have the surgery later in life will likely feel relief from the pain and avoid further problems, but motor damage and neurological problems will be permanent.


A number of complications could arise from tethered spinal cord syndrome.  Some are corrected with surgery but others will be permanent, particularly when surgery has been performed late in life

  • Neurological problems
  • Motor function disabilities
  • Cysts of the spinal cord
  • Severe pain
  • Bowel incontinence

Diagnosing and treating the condition early is the best way to avoid complications.

Tethered Spinal Cord Syndrome Prevention

There are no steps that can be taken to prevent congenital birth defects, tethered spinal cord syndrome included.  Avoiding drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes can help decrease the chances of having a child with birth defects.

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