Doernbecher Children's Hospital

Tethered Cord

The doctors at OHSU Doernbecher are experts in detecting and treating all types of tethered cord. Doernbecher — as part of OHSU, Oregon’s only academic health center — is a leader in:

  • Surgical improvements for tethered cord 
  • Research on prenatal diagnosis  
  • Research on surgical outcomes

Understanding tethered cord

Tethered cord, also called tethered spinal cord syndrome, occurs when the spinal cord has abnormal attachments inside the spinal canal, usually at the base of the spine. This keeps the spinal cord from moving freely. Stretching and tension, especially in a growing child, can cause neurologic damage. 

Tethered cord is usually present at birth because of a “neural tube defect,” such as spina bifida, but it may not be diagnosed until a child grows older and shows symptoms. (The neural tube is a hollow structure that develops into the brain and spinal cord. Improper growth can result in a birth defect.) Tethered cord can also result from injury.

Signs and symptoms

Those born with tethered cord are usually diagnosed in infancy or childhood, but some don’t see symptoms until they’re adults. Early treatment can be important because symptoms tend to worsen over time.

Signs and symptoms include: 

  • Dimples, discoloration, hairy tufts or fatty masses (lipomas) on the lower back 
  • Lower-back asymmetry, such as an anomaly in the crease between the buttocks or one buttock larger than the other  
  • Weakness or numbness 
  • Poor bladder and/or bowel control  
  • Leg and back pain 
  • Foot and spinal abnormalities, such as curvature of the spine (scoliosis
  • Walking with an abnormal gait

Diagnosis and treatment

The neuroradiologists at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital have the latest in MRI imaging for detecting tethered cord. This defect can also be diagnosed in the womb with ultrasound, giving parents time to prepare for the possibility that their baby will need surgery. 

Comprehensive care

We take a team-based approach to care, with pediatric specialists working together to diagnose, treat and monitor your child all in one place. Monitoring is important because a child’s spinal cord can sometimes reattach. 

If surgery to free your child’s spinal cord is recommended, Doernbecher’s skilled neurosurgeons offer the highest level of care. Our team, having extensively studied surgical outcomes for tethered cord, can also provide exceptional expertise for deciding when surgery is likely to relieve symptoms.

In addition, Doernbecher’s pediatric specialists offer expertise in the type of tethered cord related to spina bifida, with clinics for both comprehensive and ongoing care.

Learn more

For families

Call 503-346-0640 to:

  • Request an appointment.
  • Seek a second opinion.
  • Ask questions.

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