Increased complications without neurological benefit are associated with prophylactic spinal cord untethering prior to scoliosis surgery in children with myelomeningocele

Hannah E. Goldstein, Belinda Shao, Peter J. Madsen, Sara M. Hartnett, Jeffrey P. Blount, Douglas L. Brockmeyer, Robert M. Campbell, Michael Conklin, Todd C. Hankinson, Gregory G. Heuer, Andrew H. Jea, Benjamin C. Kennedy, Gerald F. Tuite, Luis Rodriguez, Neil A. Feldstein, Michael G. Vitale, Richard C.E. Anderson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Purpose: Children with myelomeningocele (MMC) are at increased risk of developing neuromuscular scoliosis and spinal cord re-tethering (Childs Nerv Syst 12:748-754, 1996; Neurosurg Focus 16:2, 2004; Neurosurg Focus 29:1, 2010). Some centers perform prophylactic untethering on asymptomatic MMC patients prior to scoliosis surgery because of concern that additional traction on the cord may place the patient at greater risk of neurologic deterioration peri-operatively. However, prophylactic untethering may not be justified if it carries increased surgical risks. The purpose of this study was to determine if prophylactic untethering is necessary in asymptomatic children with MMC undergoing scoliosis surgery. Methods: A multidisciplinary, retrospective cohort study from seven children’s hospitals was performed including asymptomatic children with MMC < 21 years old, managed with or without prophylactic untethering prior to scoliosis surgery. Patients were divided into three groups for analysis: (1) untethering at the time of scoliosis surgery (concomitant untethering), (2) untethering within 3 months of scoliosis surgery (prior untethering), and (3) no prophylactic untethering. Baseline data, intra-operative reports, and 90-day post-operative outcomes were analyzed to assess for differences in neurologic outcomes, surgical complications, and overall length of stay. Results: A total of 208 patients were included for analysis (mean age 9.4 years, 52% girls). No patient in any of the groups exhibited worsened motor or sensory function at 90 days post-operatively. However, comparing the prophylactic untethering groups with the group that was not untethered, there was an increased risk of surgical site infection (SSI) (31.3% concomitant, 28.6% prior untethering vs. 12.3% no untethering; p = 0.0104), return to the OR (43.8% concomitant, 23.8% prior untethering vs. 17.4% no untethering; p = 0.0047), need for blood transfusion (51.6% concomitant, 57.1% prior untethering vs. 33.8% no untethering; p = 0.04), and increased mean length of stay (LOS) (13.4 days concomitant, 10.6 days prior untethering vs. 6.8 days no untethering; p < 0.0001). In multivariable logistic regression analysis, prophylactic untethering was independently associated with increased adjusted relative risks of surgical site infection (aRR = 2.65, 95% CI 1.17–5.02), unplanned re-operation (aRR = 2.17, 95% CI 1.02–4.65), and any complication (aRR = 2.25, 95% CI 1.07–4.74). Conclusion: In this study, asymptomatic children with myelomeningocele who underwent scoliosis surgery developed no neurologic injuries regardless of prophylactic untethering. However, those who underwent prophylactic untethering were more likely to experience SSIs, return to the OR, need a blood transfusion, and have increased LOS than children not undergoing untethering. Based on these data, prophylactic untethering in asymptomatic MMC patients prior to scoliosis surgery does not provide any neurological benefit and is associated with increased surgical risks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2187-2194
Number of pages8
JournalChild's Nervous System
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Myelomeningocele
  • Prophylactic untethering
  • Scoliosis
  • Tethered cord release

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Clinical Neurology


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