In most instances, initial surgery to untether a tethered spinal cord is successful. But what happens when it is not? The authors describe the case of a now 18-year-old woman with spina bifida in whom surgery for tethered cord was required on two occasions. In both instances, due to the extent of her underlying lesion and fibrous tissue, only partial detethering was possible without acutely sacrificing significant neurological function. The authors detail the patient's course and review the peer-reviewed scientific literature on outcomes in patients in whom only partial cord detethering is achieved.
In their review of all case series and clinical studies pertaining to the surgical treatment of tethered cord syndrome identified during an online search of 2184 scientific abstracts and 2 major neurosurgery textbooks, excluding the present case, the authors identified 53 confirmed or presumed cases of incomplete detethering in eight articles, incorporating 390 patients, for an overall prevalence of roughly 13.6%. Although no investigators have reported statistical comparisons of outcomes in those in whom just partial and complete detethering has been achieved, the evidence generally suggests poorer outcomes in the former. Prospective multicenter studies addressing this important issue clearly are warranted. To date, the authors believe that incomplete detethering is grossly underreported in the medical literature.