Symptomatic Tarlov cysts are often overlooked: ten reasons why—a narrative review

Abstract

Purpose

Tarlov cysts (TCs) are dilations of nerve roots arising from pathologically increased hydrostatic pressure (HP) in the spinal canal. There is much controversy regarding whether these cysts are a rare source of pain or often produce symptoms. The aim of this review was to identify the reasons that symptomatic TCs (STCs) are easily overlooked.

Methods

The literature was searched for data regarding pathogenesis and symptomatology.

Results

TCs may be overlooked for the following reasons: (1) STCs are considered clinically irrelevant findings; (2) it is assumed that it is clinically difficult to ascertain that TCs are the cause of pain; (3) MRI or electromyography studies only focus on the L1 to S1 nerves; (4) TCs are usually not reported by radiologists; (5) degenerative alterations of the lumbosacral spine are almost always identified as the cause of a patient’s pain; (6) it is not generally known that small TCs can be symptomatic; (7) examinations and treatments usually focus on the cysts as an underlying mechanism; however, essentially, increased HP is the main underlying mechanism for producing symptoms. Consequently, STCs may relapse after surgery; (8) bladder, bowel and sphincter dysfunction are not inquired about during history taking. (9) Unexplained pain is often attributed to depression, whereas depression is more likely the consequence of debilitating neuropathic pain. (10) The recognition of STCs is subject to gender bias, confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance and unconscious bias in publishing.

Conclusion

There are several reasons STCs are underdiagnosed, mostly due to persistent misconceptions and biases.

Graphical abstract

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Hulens, M., Rasschaert, R., Bruyninckx, F. et al. Symptomatic Tarlov cysts are often overlooked: ten reasons why—a narrative review. Eur Spine J 28, 2237–2248 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00586-019-05996-1

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Keywords

  • Tarlov cysts
  • Meningeal cysts
  • Unexplained pain
  • Chronic pain
  • Intracranial hypertension