Tethered cord release: a long-term study in 114 patients

Clinical article

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All children born with a myelomeningocele at the authors' institution undergo aggressive treatment to maintain or improve functional outcome. Consequently, when any neurological, orthopedic, and/or urological changes are noted, a search for the cause is initiated. The most common cause of decline in a child born with a myelomeningocele is shunt malfunction. The second most common cause is tethering of the distal spinal cord at the site of the original back closure. In this report, the authors review the indicators of symptomatic spinal cord tethering and discuss the surgical interventions and outcomes in the children with myelomeningocele who underwent treatment at Children's Memorial Hospital from 1975 to 2008.


Among the 502 children who underwent original closure at Children's Memorial Hospital, a symptomatic tethered spinal cord developed in 114 (23%). Eighty-one patients (71%) have undergone 1 untethering procedure, and 33 patients (29%) have undergone multiple untetherings, for a total of 163 total surgeries. The indicators of symptomatic spinal cord tethering include scoliosis, decline in lower-extremity (LE) motor strength, LE contractures, LE spasticity, gait change, urinary changes, and pain.


Pain has shown the best response to surgical untethering, with 100% of children experiencing postoperative improvement. The results of long-term follow-up (average 12 years, range 1 month–23.3 years) in this cohort demonstrated scoliosis progression after surgical untethering in 52% of patients, with 28% requiring spinal fusion. On the 3-month postoperative manual muscle test, 70% of patients showed improved LE muscle strength compared to preoperatively. Gait was also similarly improved after untethering as evaluated by an orthopedic surgeon. Spasticity improved in two-thirds of the cohort, and as expected, LE contractures were stable (78%) postoperatively, as assessed by orthopedic and rehabilitation medicine specialists. Urologically, 64% of patients showed improvements on postoperative bladder evaluation.


Although this is a clinical outcome study with no control group, the authors' experience has been that tethered cord release is beneficial in maintaining neurological, urological, and orthopedic functioning in children born with a myelomeningocele.

Abbreviations used in this paper: CMH = Children's Memorial Hospital; LE = lower extremity; MMT = manual muscle test; TCR = tethered cord release.

Article Information

Address correspondence to: Robin M. Bowman, M.D., 2300 Children's Plaza, Box 28, Chicago, Illinois 60614-3394. email: rbowman@childrensmemorial.org.

© AANS, except where prohibited by US copyright law.



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    Bar graph of clinical indicators of tethering in 114 patients.

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    Bar graph of clinical indicators of tethering in 163 procedures.

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    Sagittal T1-weighted lumbar MR image demonstrating tethering in the area of the previously exposed neural placode.


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