Cauda equina syndrome: what is the relationship between timing of surgery and outcome?

J R W Gleave, R Macfarlane
British Journal of Neurosurgery 2002, 16 (4): 325-8
The role of urgent surgery in improving the outcome of cauda equina compression following lumbar central disc prolapse remains controversial. Some series claim improved outcome from emergency decompression whilst others have found no benefit. Resolution of this issue is important because the opportunity to reverse neurological impairment may already have been lost by the time of hospital admission. Removal of a large central disc prolapse can be considerably more difficult than routine discectomy, and may require an extensive exposure. When performed under less than optimal conditions, as often exists in the emergency setting, surgery may even add to rather than alleviate morbidity. This article reviews the pathophysiology of cauda equina syndrome, its definition, and the controversies surrounding management. Where urinary retention with overflow incontinence extists at presentation we believe that urgent decompression confers no benefit.

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