Diagnosis of cauda equina syndrome (CES) remains difficult; clinical assessment has low accuracy in reliably predicting MRI compression of the cauda equina (CE). This prospective study tests the usefulness of ultrasound bladder scans as an adjunct for diagnosing CES.

A total of 260 patients with suspected CES were referred to a tertiary spinal unit over a 16-month period. All were assessed by Board-eligible spinal surgeons and had transabdominal ultrasound bladder scans for pre- and post-voiding residual (PVR) volume measurements before lumbosacral MRI.

The study confirms the low predictive value of 'red flag' symptoms and signs. Of note 'bilateral sciatica' had a sensitivity of 32.4%, and a positive predictive value (PPV) of only 17.2%, and negative predictive value (NPV) 88.3%. Use of a PVR volume of ≥ 200 ml was a demonstrably more accurate test for predicting cauda equina compression on subsequent MRI (p < 0.001). The PVR sensitivity was 94.1%, specificity 66.8%, PPV 29.9% and NPV 98.7%. The PVR allowed risk-stratification with 13% patients deemed 'low-risk' of CES. They had non-urgent MRI scans. None of the latter scans showed any cauda equina compression (p < 0.006) or individuals developed subsequent CES in the intervening period. There were considerable cost-savings associated with the above strategy.

This is the largest reported prospective evaluation of suspected CES. Use of the PVR volume ≥ 200 ml was considerably more accurate in predicting CES. It is a useful adjunct to conventional clinical assessment and allows risk-stratification in managing suspected CES. If adopted widely it is less likely incomplete CES would be missed. Cite this article: Bone Joint J 2020;102-B(6):677-682.

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