Tethered Spinal Cord

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A healthy spinal cord (left) floats freely within the bones of the vertebral column. If the spinal cord becomes pinned in the lower back (right), it becomes stretched as a child grows and becomes taut as the spinal cord is tugged between the lower back and the brain stem.

Under normal circumstances, the bottom of the spinal cord floats freely within the bones of the vertebral column, so that growth and movement will not damage the nerves. In some children, however, the spinal cord becomes pinned in the lower back, creating the condition known as tethered spinal cord. As a result, as the child grows the spinal cord is tugged between the lower back and the brain stem. Children with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal column does not close, often have tethered spinal cord. Tethered cord is also associated with Chiari malformation.

Tethered spinal cord is most commonly diagnosed in infants and young children, but it can sometimes be diagnosed in adulthood. Tethered cord should be treated promptly, as it can cause problems with bladder and bowel control, gait, and strength.

What Causes a Tethered Cord?

A tethered spinal cord may be caused by a genetic disorder such as spina bifida, or by abnormal development. A bony protrusion, tumor, fatty deposit, or scar tissue may pin the spinal cord somewhere in the lower back.  

Tethered cord is one of the conditions treated by the specialists at the Weill Cornell Chiari CARE program.

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Greenfield, Ph.D., M.D. 
Last reviewed/last updated: January 2016

Illustration by Thom Graves, CMI