Most people experience leg pain now and then. Often, the cause of leg pain originates in the back. Occasional pain that results from a long day of standing or heavy work can usually be resolved with rest and an ice pack. However, there is a time when leg pain needs immediate medical intervention. It is important to know when to seek emergency care for leg pain caused by a condition known as cauda equina syndrome.
What is cauda equina syndrome?
This is not a term most people will ever hear in their lifetime, let alone experience. Cauda equina syndrome is a condition that involves the cauda equina, the bundle of nerves in the lumbar spine. These nerves are senders and receptors of neurotransmissions between the spine and the lower limbs and pelvic organs. Cauda equina syndrome occurs when the nerves become compressed to such an extent that sensation and movement to the lower body are severely affected. The nerve roots that control the bladder and bowels are particularly susceptible to damage.
This syndrome may result from a spinal fracture, spinal stenosis, a herniated disc, infection, or a tumor. These causative factors often lead to milder symptoms before severe nerve compression occurs. It is important to address persistent low back or leg pain early to avoid irreparable damage.
The pain that occurs with cauda equina syndrome is not normal low back or leg pain. It cannot be “waited out.” It will not resolve on its own. If care is not provided right away to relieve nerve compression, permanent damage to the bladder, bowels, or sexual organs may occur.
Symptoms of cauda equina syndrome that indicate the need for immediate medical care include loss of bladder or bowel function and progression of severe problems in the upper buttocks, inner thighs, back of the legs, or feet and heels.
Treating Cauda Equina Syndrome
A thorough medical history and examination are performed to diagnose cauda equina syndrome. Treatment involves immediate surgery to remove the matter that is pressing on nerve roots. The objective of treatment is to prevent permanent damage to these nerves and the organs they support.