Definitions of traumatic conus medullaris and cauda equina syndrome: a systematic literature review

Spinal Cord. 2017 Oct;55(10):886-890. doi: 10.1038/sc.2017.54. Epub 2017 May 23.


Study design: A systematic review.

Objectives: Conus medullaris syndrome (CMS) and cauda equina syndrome (CES) are well-known neurological entities. It is assumed that these syndromes are different regarding neurological and functional prognosis. However, literature concerning spinal trauma is ambiguous about the exact definition of the syndromes.

Methods: A MEDLINE, EMBASE and Cochrane literature search was performed. We included original articles in which clinical descriptions of CMS and/or CES were mentioned in patients following trauma to the thoracolumbar spine.

Results: Out of the 1046 articles, we identified 14 original articles concerning patients with a traumatic CMS and/or CES. Based on this review and anatomical data from cadaveric and radiological studies, CMS and CES could be more precisely defined.

Conclusion: CMS may result from injury of vertebrae Th12-L2, and it involves damage to neural structures from spinal cord segment Th12 to nerve root S5. CES may result from an injury of vertebrae L3-L5, and it involves damage to nerve roots L3-S5. This differentiation between CMS and CES is necessary to examine the hypothesis that CES patients tend to have a better functional outcome.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Nerve Compression Syndromes / diagnostic imaging
  • Nerve Compression Syndromes / pathology
  • Nerve Compression Syndromes / physiopathology
  • Polyradiculopathy* / diagnostic imaging
  • Polyradiculopathy* / pathology
  • Polyradiculopathy* / physiopathology
  • Spinal Cord Compression* / diagnostic imaging
  • Spinal Cord Compression* / pathology
  • Spinal Cord Compression* / physiopathology
  • Terminology as Topic*