The treatment of tethered cord syndromes in adults is discussed regarding the natural history and surgical indications. The author analyzes data obtained in patients who were diagnosed with a tethered cord in adulthood and either underwent surgical or conservative therapy between 1991 and 2009.
Since 1991, data obtained in 2515 patients with spinal cord pathologies were entered into the spinal cord database, and prospective follow-up was performed through outpatient visits and questionnaires. Of the 2515 patients, 85 adults with a tethered cord syndrome formed the basis of this study. The tethering effect was caused either by a split cord malformation, a thick filum terminale, a conus medullaris lipoma with extradural extension, or various combinations of these mechanisms. The mean age of the patients was 46 ± 13 years (range 23-74 years) and the mean follow-up duration was 61 ± 62 months. Two groups were distinguished based on the absence (Group A, 43 patients) or presence (Group B, 42 patients) of an associated lipoma or dysraphic cyst (that is, dermoid, epidermoid, or neurenteric cyst). Surgery was recommended for patients with symptoms only. Short-term results were determined within 3 months of surgery, whereas long-term outcomes (clinical recurrences) were evaluated using Kaplan-Meier statistics.
For all patients, pain was the most common major complaint. Severe neurological deficits were rare. In Group A, 20 of 43 patients underwent surgery, whereas in Group B 23 of 42 patients underwent surgery. Among individuals who did not undergo surgery, 17 patients refused surgery and 25 patients underwent recommended conservative treatment. Short-term postoperative results indicated a significant improvement of pain and a stabilization of neurological symptoms. Long-term results showed a good prognosis in patients in whom first-time (that is, nonrevision) surgery achieved successful untethering, with a 10-year rate of neurological stabilization in 89% of Group A and a 10-year rate of neurological stabilization in 81% of Group B patients. The benefit of secondary operations in Group B was limited, with eventual clinical deterioration occurring in all patients within 10 years. For patients treated conservatively, follow-up information could be obtained in 33 of 42 patients. Twenty-eight patients remained in stable clinical condition. Only 5 of the conservatively treated patients experienced clinical deterioration over time; in 4 of these individuals with deterioration, surgery had been recommended but was refused by the patient. The clinical recurrence rate in all conservatively treated patients was 21% after 10 years. With a recommendation for surgery this figure rose to 47% within 5 years.
Surgery in adult patients with a tethered cord syndrome should be reserved for those with symptoms. In surgically treated patients, pain relief can often be achieved, and long-term neurological stabilization tends to persist more often than it does in conservatively treated patients. A conservative approach is warranted, however, in adult patients without neurological deficits. Revision surgery in patients with complex dysraphic lesions should be performed in exceptional cases only.