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The Cauda Equina Nerves

The Cauda Equina Nerves

The cauda equina nerves are located at the base of the spine. If compressed, it can lead to a condition called cauda equina syndrome.

Cauda equina nerves

The cauda equina is the collective term for a bundle of nerves that begin at the base of the spinal cord in the lower back. The spread down through the pelvis, buttocks and legs. The nerves are very long and together resemble a horse's tail, which is why early scientists named it the 'cauda equina' which is Latin for horse's tail.

What do the cauda equina nerves do?

The cauda equina nerves have a number of functions. They provide both sensation and function to the pelvic organs (including the bladder and bowel), sexual organs, anal sphincter and rectum, lower limbs, perineum, urethra, buttocks and groin.

Cauda equina compression

The cauda equina nerves are delicate and cannot be placed under any pressure. If they are compressed, the nerve cells will become deficient in oxygen and will die. The nerves will then be unable to function properly, and the individual will begin to notice dysfunction in the aforementioned body parts.

When neurological dysfunction occurs because of cauda equina compression, the individual has a condition called cauda equina syndrome.

What causes cauda equina compression?

It is uncommon for the cauda equina nerves to be compressed, meaning that cauda equina syndrome is thankfully a rare condition.

However, there are plenty of ways in which compression can happen. Most frequently cauda equina syndrome will arise as a result of a large central disc prolapse (a slipped disc) in the lower back. Most will occur at the L4/L5 level in the lumbar region of the spine.

Other potential causes include tumours on the spine, a spinal abscess, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spine), ankylosing spondylitis (arthritis in the spine), inflammation, infection and traumatic injuries (such as a road traffic accident).

Cauda equina syndrome dysfunction

At first function may seem slightly reduced. As time goes by, this dysfunction will become increasingly severe, which happens because the nerves are becoming increasingly injured. Once the nerve cells begin to die the nerves cannot actually be repaired, so the damage will be permanent. Any symptoms that are present will also be permanent.

Can cauda equina syndrome be treated?

Cauda equina syndrome can be treated with decompression surgery, which as the name suggests, decompresses the nerves.

Will this resolve cauda equina dysfunction?

The timing of surgery is significant with cauda equina syndrome because, as stated above, the nerves will become increasingly damaged over time. Permanent injury can happen very quickly indeed, with most doctors agreeing that surgery is needed within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. If surgery is performed quickly enough, the patient can make a good recovery. But if surgery delayed beyond this timeframe, it may be that the patient's condition does not improve.

What if delays are the fault of doctors?

If delays in medical care slow down the treatment of cauda equina syndrome, there could be a breach of duty. If this has caused the patient undue harm, there could be a case of medical negligence. If this has happened to you, please contact our medical negligence team to discuss the possibility of claiming compensation.

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