The disks of the spine consist of flexible tissues to provide cushioning to the vertebrae. According to Spine Universe, one of the most common spine injuries from car accidents is a herniated disk. Trauma from the accident causes the disk to tear open, allowing the soft, gelatinous material inside to leak out and put pressure on the spinal cord.
By itself, a herniated disk is not life-threatening. However, it can contribute to a potentially deadly or debilitating complication called cauda equina syndrome.
What is the cauda equina?
The spinal cord does not extend all the way down the backbone. It stops somewhere along the lumbar spine. However, nerve roots extend out from the end of the spinal cord to supply the pelvic organs and lower extremities. “Cauda equina” means “horse’s tail,” which is what the nerve roots look like. A herniated disk can cut off nerve signals to the cauda equina.
What are the symptoms of cauda equina syndrome?
According to WebMD, there are several symptoms that are particularly troubling for cauda equina syndrome. One of the most characteristic is saddle anesthesia, which causes the parts of the body that would touch if one were sitting in a saddle to go numb. Cauda equina syndrome can also affect bowel or bladder function. A patient may experience incontinence, meaning trouble holding waste in, or retention, or difficulty eliminating it. Other symptoms of cauda equina syndrome include numbness or weakness in the lower extremities, sexual dysfunction or severe low back pain.
Cauda equina syndrome is a medical emergency requiring surgery to treat. Even with treatment, some chronic dysfunction may persist.