Timing of surgical intervention in cauda equina syndrome: a systematic critical review

Anthony Minh Tien Chau, Lileane Liang Xu, Nicholas Robert Pelzer, Cristian Gragnaniello

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    73 Citations (Scopus)


    Objective: Cauda equina syndrome (CES) is a rare but important neurosurgical emergency. Despite being a recognized clinical entity since 1934, there remains significant uncertainty in the literature regarding the urgency for surgical intervention. The past decade has seen the emergence of the much-referred-to 48-hour limit as a possible window of safety. The ramifications of this time point are significant for early patients who may subsequently have urgent treatment delayed, and for litigation cases, after which adverse decisions are more likely to occur. Methods: A systematic principally qualitative review of the animal and human clinical literature is presented, examining the evidence for urgent surgical decompression in CES and the much-quoted 48-hour rule. Results: There is significant discordance in the literature regarding whether emergency surgery improves outcomes; however, a growing consensus is the acknowledgment that biologic systems deteriorate in a continuous rather than stepwise manner. Level of neurological dysfunction at surgery (incomplete CES vs. CES with retention) is probably the most significant determinant of prognosis. Onset and duration of symptoms also are likely to have an impact, if not on overall outcome then at least on duration of neurological recovery. Conclusions: There is no strong basis to support 48 hours as a blanket safe time point to delay surgery. Both early and delayed surgery may result in improved neurological outcomes. However, it is likely that the earlier the surgical intervention, the more beneficial the effects for compressed nerves, especially with acute neurological compromise.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)640-650
    Number of pages11
    JournalWorld Neurosurgery
    Issue number3/4
    Publication statusPublished - 2014


    • Cauda equina
    • Evidence-based medicine
    • Polyradiculopathy
    • Surgical decompression


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