Medical screening and evacuation: cauda equina syndrome in a combat zone

J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2009 Jul;39(7):541-9. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2009.2999.


Study design: Resident's case problem.

Background: Cauda equina syndrome (CES) is a rare, potentially devastating, disorder and is considered a true neurologic emergency. CES often has a rapid clinical progression, making timely recognition and immediate surgical referral essential.

Diagnosis: A 32-year-old male presented to a medical aid station in Iraq with a history of 4 weeks of insidious onset and recent worsening of low back, left buttock, and posterior left thigh pain. He denied symptoms distal to the knee, paresthesias, saddle anesthesia, or bowel and bladder function changes. At the initial examination, the patient was neurologically intact throughout all lumbosacral levels with negative straight-leg raises. He also presented with severely limited lumbar flexion active range of motion, and reduction of symptoms occurred with repeated lumbar extension. At the follow-up visit, 10 days later, he reported a new, sudden onset of saddle anesthesia, constipation, and urinary hesitancy, with physical exam findings of right plantar flexion weakness, absent right ankle reflex, and decreased anal sphincter tone. No advanced medical imaging capabilities were available locally. Due to suspected CES, the patient was medically evacuated to a neurosurgeon and within 48 hours underwent an emergent L4-5 laminectomy/decompression. He returned to full military duty 18 weeks after surgery without back or lower extremity symptoms or neurological deficit.

Discussion: This case demonstrates the importance of continual medical screening for physical therapists throughout the patient management cycle. It further demonstrates the importance of immediate referral to surgical specialists when CES is suspected, as rapid intervention offers the best prognosis for recovery.

Level of evidence: Differential diagnosis, level 4. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 2009;39(7):541-549, Epub 24 February 2009. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2009.2999.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Humans
  • Iraq War, 2003-2011*
  • Low Back Pain / etiology*
  • Lumbosacral Region
  • Male
  • Military Medicine / methods
  • Military Personnel*
  • Polyradiculopathy / diagnosis*
  • Polyradiculopathy / surgery
  • Postoperative Care*
  • United States