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Sacral Tarlov Cysts: Diagnosis and Treatment

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    Sacral Tarlov Cysts: Diagnosis and Treatment

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    Sacral Tarlov Cysts: Diagnosis and Treatment
    December 14, 2008 by wiseyoung

    Sacral Tarlov Cysts: Diagnosis and Treatment
    By Wise Young, Ph.D., M.D.
    W. M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience
    Rutgers, State University of New Jersey, Piscataway, NJ 08854-8082
    13 December 2008

    Someone recently asked for an explanation of Tarlov cysts, what they are, how they are diagnosed, and the best way to treat them. I will describe below the criteria for diagnosis, the prevalence of the cysts, the symptoms, and recommended treatments.

    What are Tarlov Cysts?

    Tarlov cysts are fluid-filled cysts associated with sacral nerve roots, at the junction of the nerve root and root ganglion. First described by Tarlov [1] in 1938, when he was at the Montreal Institute of Neurology, he was careful to call these cysts perineural and to distinguish them from meningeal cysts, which would be extensions of subarachnoid space.

    Computerized tomographic (CT) myelography where dye is injected into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) showed that Tarlov cysts are true meningeal cysts that communicate with spinal subarachnoid space [2, 3]. To demonstrate communication of Tarlov cysts with subarachnoid space, CT scans should be obtained 30-60 minutes after injection of subarachnoid dye.

    In 1988, Nabors et al. [4] classified Tarlov cysts as a kind of extradural meningeal cyst. A Tarlov perineural cyst differs from other meningeal cysts in that there are spinal root axons within the cyst walls or the cavity of the cyst. The cysts may surround the nerve or extend into the nerve. For this reason, simple excision of the Tarlov cysts will damage the spinal root.

    Prevalence and Symptoms

    In his original 1938 communication, Tarlov had found these cysts in 5 of 30 cadavers (17%). In 1994, Paulsen, et al. [5] found 23 patients with perineural cysts out of 500 sequential lumbosacral magnetic resonance scans (4.6%). In 2005, Langdown, et al. [6] in Australia reported that 54 patients out of 3535 MRI scans (1.5%) obtained for lumbosacral symptoms had Tarlov cysts.

    Most Tarlov cysts are asymptomatic. Tarlov initially thought that the cysts are innocuous. However, in 1948, he [7] reported a case of sciatica associated with a sacral perineural cyst. Paulsen, et al. [5] found that five of 23 patients with the cysts were symptomatic (22%) and that CT-guided cyst puncture reduced pain. In the Langdown study [6], 7 of 54 patients (13%) had symptoms due to the cyst.

    Symptoms are variable, ranging from radicular pain [8] and paresthesia to urinary and bowel dysfunction [9, 10], cauda equina syndrome [11], and even abdominal pain [12], depending on the level of sacral roots involved. Pain is the most common presentation.


    Most surgeons agree that asymptomatic Tarlov cysts should not be treated [13] and that symptomatic cysts should be treated. Several treatment options are available:

    • Lumbar drainage. Bartels & Overbeeke [14] reported that lumbar CSF drainage relieved pain in 2 of 3 patients with symptomatic Tarlov cysts. Subsequently, they did a lumbar-peritoneal shunt in one patient to relieve the pressure. This suggests that CSF pressure contributes to the size of Tarlov cysts and that they are true meningeal cysts.

    • CT-guided percutaneous decompression. Paulsen, et al. [5] did percutaneous CT-guided decompression of the cysts, reporting rapid reduction in symptoms and relief of pain but the symptoms returned in 3 weeks to 6 months. Patel, et al. [15] used CT-guidance decompression but injected fibrin glue after the decompression, finding no recurrence over 23 months.

    • Decompressive laminectomy. Siqueira, et al. [16] did decompressive laminectomy in two patients. Sa & Sa [17] treated four cases with a sacral laminectomy, reporting resolution of the pain. However, the pain often recurred. Tanaka, et al. [18] treated 12 consecutive patients with laminectomies and imbrications of the sacral cysts.

    • Laminectomy and cyst resection. Voyadzis, et al. [9] operated on 10 patients, carrying out sacral laminectomies and resections of the cysts. Seven of 10 patients had complete resolution of their pain but 3 (30%) showed no benefit. These three all had cysts smaller than 1.5 cm in diameter. Histology revealed nerve fibers in 75% of the cases, ganglion cells in 25%, and evidence of old hemorrhage in half.

    • Laminectomy, partial cyst excision, duroplasty or plication of the cyst walls. Total cyst resection is unnecessary [19]. Caspar, et al. [20] excised the cysts with duroplasty or plication of cyst wall in 15 patients with no complications and relief of pain in 13 (87%).

    • Laminectomy, fenestration of cyst wall, partial resectio, and myofascial flap. Acosta, et al. [13] stimulated the cyst wall to find motor axons, resected parts did not have nerves, and then used a muscle flap to close the cyst. Guo, et al. [21] used a similar approach to resect the cyst wall, imbricated the remaining sheath, and repaired the defect with muscle and Gelfoam.

    Summary and Conclusions

    Tarlov cysts are fluid-filled meningeal cysts on spinal roots. Although present in 1-5% of the population, only 10% to 20% of cysts are symptomatic, manifesting as sciatica or other radicular pains, bowel and bladder problems, and other complaints. Lumbar CSF drainage and percutaneous CT-guided drainage of the cysts will relieve the symptoms temporarily. Injecting fibrin glue postpones recurrence. Resection of the cyst resolves the pain but histology revealed nerve fibers and sensory ganglion in the cyst walls. Laminectomy, fenestration and partial resection with careful neurophysiological testing to avoid motor fibers, and closure with a muscle flap is the preferred approach.


    1. Tarlov I (1938). Perineural cysts of the spinal nerve roots. Arch Neurol Psychiatry. 40: 1067-1074.

    2. Goyal RN, Russell NA, Belanger JM, Benoit BG and Rawa M (1987). Metrizamide CT scanning in spinal nerve root cysts. Can J Neurol Sci. 14: 149-52.

    3. Goyal RN, Russell NA, Benoit BG and Belanger JM (1987). Intraspinal cysts: a classification and literature review. Spine. 12: 209-13.

    4. Nabors MW, Pait TG, Byrd EB, Karim NO, Davis DO, Kobrine AI and Rizzoli HV (1988). Updated assessment and current classification of spinal meningeal cysts. J Neurosurg. 68: 366-77.

    5. Paulsen RD, Call GA and Murtagh FR (1994). Prevalence and percutaneous drainage of cysts of the sacral nerve root sheath (Tarlov cysts). AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 15: 293-7; discussion 298-9.

    6. Langdown AJ, Grundy JR and Birch NC (2005). The clinical relevance of Tarlov cysts. J Spinal Disord Tech. 18: 29-33.

    7. Tarlov IM (1948). Cysts, perineurial, of the sacral roots; another cause, removable, of sciatic pain. J Am Med Assoc. 138: 740-4.

    8. Chaiyabud P and Suwanpratheep K (2006). Symptomatic Tarlov cyst: report and review. J Med Assoc Thai. 89: 1047-50.

    9. Voyadzis JM, Bhargava P and Henderson FC (2001). Tarlov cysts: a study of 10 cases with review of the literature. J Neurosurg. 95: 25-32.

    10. Kumpers P, Wiesemann E, Becker H, Haubitz B, Dengler R and Zermann DH (2006). [Sacral nerve root cysts--a rare cause of bladder dysfunction. Case report and review of the literature]. Aktuelle Urol. 37: 372-5.

    11. Nicpon KW, Lasek W and Chyczewska A (2002). [Cauda equina syndrome caused by Tarlov's cysts--case report]. Neurol Neurochir Pol. 36: 181-9.

    12. Slipman CW, Bhat AL, Bhagia SM, Issac Z, Gilchrist RV and Lenrow DA (2003). Abdominal pain secondary to a sacral perineural cyst. Spine J. 3: 317-20.

    13. Acosta FL, Jr., Quinones-Hinojosa A, Schmidt MH and Weinstein PR (2003). Diagnosis and management of sacral Tarlov cysts. Case report and review of the literature. Neurosurg Focus. 15: E15.

    14. Bartels RH and van Overbeeke JJ (1997). Lumbar cerebrospinal fluid drainage for symptomatic sacral nerve root cysts: an adjuvant diagnostic procedure and/or alternative treatment? Technical case report. Neurosurgery. 40: 861-4; discussion 864-5.

    15. Patel MR, Louie W and Rachlin J (1997). Percutaneous fibrin glue therapy of meningeal cysts of the sacral spine. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 168: 367-70.

    16. Siqueira EB, Schaffer L, Kranzler LI and Gan J (1984). CT characteristics of sacral perineural cysts. Report of two cases. J Neurosurg. 61: 596-8.

    17. Sa MC and Sa RC (2004). [Tarlov cysts: report of four cases]. Arq Neuropsiquiatr. 62: 689-94.

    18. Tanaka M, Nakahara S, Ito Y, Nakanishi K, Sugimoto Y, Ikuma H and Ozaki T (2006). Surgical results of sacral perineural (Tarlov) cysts. Acta Med Okayama. 60: 65-70.

    19. Yucesoy K, Naderi S, Ozer H and Arda MN (1999). Surgical treatment of sacral perineural cysts. A case report. Kobe J Med Sci. 45: 245-50.

    20. Caspar W, Papavero L, Nabhan A, Loew C and Ahlhelm F (2003). Microsurgical excision of symptomatic sacral perineurial cysts: a study of 15 cases. Surg Neurol. 59: 101-5; discussion 105-6.

    21. Guo D, Shu K, Chen R, Ke C, Zhu Y and Lei T (2007). Microsurgical treatment of symptomatic sacral perineurial cysts. Neurosurgery. 60: 1059-65; discussion 1065-6.

    Dr. Young,

    I have 2008 diagnosis Tarlov Cyst, I think MRI or CT of spine, and this, only 20 or more years, when prior back complaints only offered x-ray prescribed by physicians.
    I am still battling chronic neurological problems, and because of other symptomologies, a CT scan prescribed abdominally, with find of a blood vessel growth in spleen, with something cord-like extending down from spleen, wrapping around spine, and doesn't appear to connect to anything in spine. Reading radiologiest left discussion off report, but have copy of images, and in follow-up with radiologist via phone, his only remarkes, "It is a blood vessel". I think if abdominal CT Scan performed for Tarlov cyst type patients, there will be further understanding about Tarlov Cyst and cause of neurological symptomology. Don't simply look for the backside, but take a close look from the front too, abdominally, and only with CT Scan.