Tarlov cyst

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Tarlov cyst
Cisti Tarlov RM coron.jpg
MRI image showing a Tarlov cyst.
Classification and external resources
ICD-9-CM 355.9
DiseasesDB 32082

Tarlov cysts, also known as perineural cysts,[1] are type II innervated meningeal cysts, cerebrospinal-fluid-filled (CSF) sacs most frequently located in the spinal canal of the S1-to-S5 region of the spinal cord (much less often in the cervical, thoracic or lumbar spine), and can be distinguished from other meningeal cysts by their nerve-fiber-filled walls. Tarlov cysts are defined as cysts formed within the nerve-root sheath at the dorsal root ganglion.[2] Since Tarlov cysts are cysts of the spinal meninges, symptomatic Tarlov cysts by definition cause myelopathy. The etiology of these cysts is not well understood; some current theories explaining this phenomenon have not yet been tested or challenged but include increased pressure in CSF, filling of congenital cysts withone way valves, inflammation in response to trauma and disease. They are named for neurologist Isadore Tarlov, who described them in 1938.[3]

Tarlov cysts are relatively common when compared to other neurological cysts. Initially, Isadore Tarlov believed them to be asypmptomatic, however as his research progressed, Tarlov found them to be symptomatic in a number of patients. These cysts are often detected incidentally during MRI or CT scans for other medical conditions. They are also observed used magnetic resonance neurography communicating subarachnoid cysts of the spinal meninges. Cysts with diameters of 1cm are larger are more likely to be symptomatic, although cysts of any size may be symptomatic dependent on location and etiology. Some 40% of patients with symptomatic Tarlov cysts can associate a history of trauma or childbirth. [4] Current treatment options include CSF aspiration, complete or partial removal, fibrin-glue therapy, laminectomy with wrapping of the cyst, amongst other surgical treatment approaches. Interventional treatment of Tarlov cysts is the only means by which symptoms might permanently be resolved due to the fact that the cysts often refill after aspiration. Tarlov cysts often enlarge over time, especially if the sac has a check valve type opening. They are differentiated from other meningeal and arachnoid cysts because they are innervated and diagnosis can in cases be demonstrated with subarachnoid communication.

Tarlov perineural cysts have occasionally been observed in patients with Marfan syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and Loeys-Dietz syndrome.[5]


Tarlov cysts are considered Type II lesions, being defined as extradural meningeal cysts with nerve fibers.[6] Nabors et al. classify Arachnoïd cysts into three types:

  • Type I : Extra-dural; no nerve roots or rootlets such as intra-sacral meningoceles; probably of congenital origin developing from the dural sac to which they are connected by a little collar. They are found at the point of exit of a dorsal nerve root from the dural sac. They are sometimes difficult to identify and can be "seen" as a type II cyst on imaging. These cysts are often associated with foramina enlargement and scalloping of the vertebrae. It is very important to distinguish them from sacral meningoceles going to the pelvic area; they are often associated with other congenital abnormalities ( teratomes, dermoïdes, lipomes, and other abnormalities( uro-genital and ano-rectal))
  • Type II: Extra-dural; nerve root present (such as Tarlov or perineural cysts). There are often not only one but multiple cysts, mostly found in the sacrum area. There are two types: Tarlov (perineural) cysts are located posteriorly to the root ganglion, with nerve fibres inside or nerve tissue in the walls; they are not communicating with the perineural arachnoid space. Type-II cysts are very small in the upper sacral area, but can be bigger (up to 3 centimetres or 1.2 inches) if found located in the lower part of the sacrum.
    The second variant of type-II cysts are called "meningeal diverticuli". They are located anteriorly to the nerve root ganglion, with nerves fibres inside and communicating with the subarachnoid space. 75% of all extra-dural cysts (except for Tarlov cysts) are located in the thoracic area, 20% in the lumbar and sacral area, and 5% in the cervical area. Most cysts are located posteriorly or laterally to the dural sac. Nearly 50% of cysts can extend towards the foramina. These are large in size, communicate with subarachnoid space, and can be large enough to extend across 6 vertebrae levels. There can be evidence of bone erosion in the foramina and dural canal.
  • Type III: intra-dural; these are either congenital or caused by trauma; they are rarely associated with other abnormalities and rare in occurrence. About 75% can be found in the dorsal area. Most of the congenital type-III cysts can be found posteriorly to the spinal cord, as opposed to those caused by trauma which can be found anteriorly to the spinal cord.[6][7]Post trumatic inflammation induces cavitation and cystic formation and leads to greater secondary CNS injury. [8]

Cellular migration causing these cyst cavities was observed both in vitro and in vivo and cavitation was observed to be prevented with the use of an anti-inflammatory. Further more migration inflammatory cells into traumatized tissue has has been observed with inflammation.



Walls of Tarlov cysts are thin and fibrous; they are prone to rupture if touched, making surgery difficult. The nerve fibers embedded in the walls of the cysts have the appearance and size of dental floss; these nerve fibers are usually not arranged in any specific alignment.[9] Histologic examination reveals the Tarlov-cyst outer wall is composed of vascular connective tissue, and the inner wall is lined with flattened arachnoid tissue. In addition, part of the lining containing nerve fibers also occasionally contains ganglion cells.[10] The cysts can contain anywhere from a couple of milliliters of CSF to over 2.5 litres (0.5 imp gal; 0.7 US gal) of CSF.[9][11][12]


Tarlov cysts are primarily located in the S1 to S4 region of the spinal canal. They usually form on the extradural components of sacrococcygeal nerve roots at the junction of dorsal root ganglion and posterior nerve roots and arise between the endoneurium and perineurium.[13] Occasionally, these cysts are observed in the lumbar and thoracic spine.[10] However, these cysts most commonly arise at the S2 or S3 junction of the dorsal nerve root ganglion.[7][14] The cysts are often multiple, extending around the circumference of the nerve, and can enlarge over time to compress neighboring nerve roots, to cause bone erosion.[15] The cysts may be found anterior to the sacral area and have been known to extend into the abdominal cavity. These cysts, though rare, can be found to grow large - over 3–4 centimetres (1.2–1.6 in) in size, often causing severe abdominal pain from compression on the cyst itself as well as adjoining nerves.

Difference between Tarlov cysts and other spinal meningeal cysts[edit]

The following table is compilation of some key differences between Tarlov cysts, meningeal cysts, and arachnoid diverticula cysts.[6] Although the definitions for each entity are still controversial, the following items are generally accepted.

Tarlov Cyst Meningeal Diverticula & Arachnoid Diverticula
Potential communication with spinal subarachnoid space Communicates freely with spinal subarachnoid space
Delayed filling in myelograms Rapid filling in myelograms
Found distal to the junction of posterior nerve root and dorsal root ganglion in sacral region Found proximal to dorsal root ganglion throughout vertebral column
Walls contain nerve fibers Walls lined by arachnoid mater with no signs of neural element
Often multiple, extending around the circumference of nerve root No pattern of formation in regards to multiplicity


Tarlov cysts are often asymptomatic; the cases of reported symptomatic Tarlov cysts ranges from 15% to 30% of the overall reported Tarlov cyst case, depending on the source of literature. Nevertheless, these cysts are important clinical entities because of their tendency to increase in size over time, potentially causing complications and eroding the surrounding bone tissue.[7][15][16] Patients with symptomatic Tarlov cysts can be divided into 4 categories, according to their experienced symptoms:[9]

  • Group 1 - Pain on tailbones that radiates to the legs with potential weakness;
  • Group 2 - Pain on bones, legs, groin area, sexual dysfunctions, and dysfunctional bladder;
  • Group 3 - Pain that radiate from the cyst site across hips to the lower abdomen;
  • Group 4 - No pain, just sexual dysfunction and dysfunctional bladder.

Common symptoms[edit]

Below are a list of commonly reported symptoms associated with Tarlov cysts:

Back pain, perineal pain, Sciatica, Cauda equina syndrome, neurogenic claudication, dysuria, urinary incontinence, coccygodynia, sacral radiculopathy, radicular pain, headaches, retrograde ejaculation, paresthesia, hypesthesia, motor disorders in lower limbs and the genital, perineal, or lumbosacral areas, sacral or buttocks pain, vaginal or penile paraesthesia, sensory changes over buttocks, perineal area, and lower extremity;[7][10][15][17] difficulty walking; severe lower abdominal pain. Bowel dysfunction, constipation or bowel incontinence



There are several hypotheses proposed regarding the formation of Tarlov cysts, including: hemorrhagic infiltration of spinal tissue, inflammation within the nerve root cysts followed by inoculation of fluids, developmental or congenital origin, arachnoidal proliferation along and around the exiting sacral nerve root, and breakage of venous drainage in the perineuria and epineurium secondary to hemosiderin deposition after trauma.[13] Tarlov himself theorized that the perineural cysts form as a result of blockage of venous drainage in the perineurium and epineurium secondary to hemosiderin deposition, after local trauma.[15][18] Another theory gaining increasing popularity, over the past decade, is one postulated by Fortuna et al.; it described perineural cysts to be the results of congenital arachnoidal proliferation along the exiting sacral nerve roots.[11] Some research on the migration of inflammatory cell migration into spinal has been studied. The cause of these cysts is still unknown, and the proposed theories have not been tested or challenged.[9]


Tarlov cysts are known to have the tendency to enlarge over time. The prominent theory that explains this phenomenon reasons the enlargement of the cysts is due to the cerebrospinal fluid being pushed into the cyst during systole pulsation, but unable to get out during the diastole phase, resulting in enlargement over time. However, this theory has yet to be tested. Although growth in the cysts occur, it is still unknown how often, or at what condition, these cyst form, or if any underlying condition is essential for the formation and enlargement of these cysts.

Many patients have been diagnosed for 20 years, showing a very thin sacrum bone "protecting" a large meningeal cyst. MRIs regularly made do not show any enlargement or any change. The "erosion" theory might be a simplification in regard of the life of a bony structure. Another view involves the shape of the bone, according to the fact that between the bone and the cyst strong and solid ligaments exist, and that the walls of the cysts are very fragile compared to ligaments and bones, when looking "eroded" means a congenital cyst or that was formed before the person was about 25 years old. There are many people who have cysts and no remodelling of the bone: neuroradiologists tell that those are due to a cause which took place when older than 25 years.

Bone Development and Structure

Because bone is made up of minerals, mostly hydroxyapatite, and is hard, many people think that it is not living material. But a bone in a living animal consists of both living tissue and non-living substances. Within the "alive bone" are blood vessels, nerves, collagen, and living cells including:

osteoblasts (cells that help form bone), and
osteoclasts (cells that help eat away old bone).

In addition, bone contains cells called osteocytes, which are mature osteoblasts that have ended their bone-forming careers. These cells engage in metabolic exchange with the blood that flows through the bones. The nonliving, but very important, substances in bone are the minerals and salts. Besides the metabolically active cellular portion of bone tissue, bone is also made up of a matrix (a bonding of multiple fibers and chemicals) of different materials, including primarily collagen fibers and crystalline salts. In particular, it is the collagen fibers and the calcium salts that help to strengthen bone. In fact, the collagen fibers of bone have great tensile strength (the strength to endure stretching forces), while the calcium salts, which are similar in physical properties to marble, have great compressional strength (the strength to endure squeezing forces). These combined properties, plus the degree of bondage between the collagen fibers and the crystals, provide a bony structure that has both extreme tensile and compressional strength.

Thus, bones are constructed in exactly the same way that reinforced concrete is constructed. The steel of reinforced concrete provides the tensile strength, while the cement, sand, and rock provide the compressional strength. However, the compressional strength of bone is greater than that of even the best reinforced concrete, and the tensile strength approaches that of reinforced concrete. But, even with their great compressional and tensile strengths, neither bone nor concrete has a very high level of torsional strength (the strength to endure twisting). In fact, bone fractures often occur as a result of torsional forces that are exerted on an arm or a leg.[9]

The Blood Theory

Many authors state that the blood, and breakdown products, acting as a foreign-body substance in the subarachnoid space, produce local adhesive arachnoiditis with no symptoms but can also create cystic degeneration. The subarachnoid space abhors all foreign body substances. Even the presence of injected air is considered to be a "foreign body." Blood is definitely considered a foreign body (particularly the breakdown products of blood). Repeated exposure to foreign-body substances in the subarachnoid space can initiate auto-immune amnestic reactions which may potentiate and magnify the ongoing inflammatory process.

Few clinicians appreciate that significant pathologic change can occur unaccompanied by clinical symptoms because of the body's remarkable ability to adjust to, and compensate for, slowly occurring insult. This is particularly true of nervous system which does not respond well to acute change or acute insult (i.e. sudden trauma, acute intracranial haemorrhage or acute rupture of an aneurysm). The ability of the body to compensate is an important reason why most individual afflicted with adhesive arachnoiditis have few in the way of clinical symptoms. This state is, however, a tenuous one, which can change dramatically with only minimal additional insult, mostly when the individual is also afflicted of meningeal (arachnoid or Tarlov cysts).

We also live in a medical era where (inadvertent) lumbar punctures are performed by in cases of attempted epidural steroid administration or epidural anaesthesia.

It is unusual for patients to experience, as a complication of spinal tap, continued leakage of cerebrospinal fluid producing postural headache, light-headedness and inability to function due to these complaints. The commonly employed treatment for this is a "blood patch". Blood drawn from a vein is purposely injected into the supposed epidural space as a means of "patching" the leaking fluid.

Appropriate blood patches routinely introduce some blood into the subarachnoid space and inappropriate ones may introduce as much as 10-12cc of blood directly into the subarachnoid space. How much blood, introduced how often, is necessary to create adhesive arachnoiditis? This question has not yet been answered. We only know at this point in time, that blood, and its breakdown products, can serve to create adhesive arachnoiditis and the introduction of any foreign body substance (for any purpose) into the subarachnoid space is not a wonderful idea.

Not to forget to mention that arachnoïd cysts, meningeal cysts are very frequently induced by a dormant Arachnoïditis and that only that area of the spine, where the “cysts” are can be the cause for neuropathic pain and a limitation of functions syndrome.( Charles Burton-The Burton report http://www.burtonreport.com/, Dr Sarah Fox http://www.theaword.org/,Dr Aldrete - Arachnoïditis: The evidence revealed jan.2010, editorial Allil ISBN 978-607-7504-25-2)


Two most commonly used and effective examination method for Tarlov Cysts are MRI and CT. Both CT and MRI are good imaging procedures that allow the detection of extradural spinal masses such as Tarlov cysts. Magnetic resonance neurography is an emerging imaging technology based on MRI that highlights neurologic tissue. Often cysts are under reported and under diagnosed as radiologists and neurosurgeons have been traditionally taught to ignore these cysts. Patients frequently experience difficulty in diagnosis, however this is changing as Tarlov cysts have now been recognized by NORD as a rare disease. [19]


MRI sagittal image of sacral and dorso-lumbar perineural cysts.

MRI, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging, is considered the imaging study of choice in identifying Tarlov cysts. MRI provides better resolution of tissue density, absence of bone interference, multiplanar capabilities, and is noninvasive. Plain films may show bony erosion of the spinal canal or of the sacral foramina On MRI pictures, the signal is the same as the CSF one.

If MRI made with a contrast medium:

  • The signal in the cyst is the same as in the dural bag.
  • The signal for cysts due to traumas…is a little stronger at the periphery or nerve root location
  • The signal is more important for other causes: synovial cysts, dermoïdes or épidermoïdes cysts, teratomes[10][20][21]


A computed tomography (CT) scan is another examination method often used for the diagnosis of Tarlov cyst. Unenhanced CT scans may show sacral erosion, asymmetric epidural fat distribution, and cystic masses that are have the same density with CSF.[10] CT Myelogram is minimally invasive,[22] and could be employed when MRI cannot be performed on patient.


The term "Tarlov cysts" (or "sacral perineural cyst"), has often been misused for referring to other cystic lesions in the sacral region. Tarlov cysts are often detected through MRI or CT Myelography; these tools are very useful in spotting cysts at the region, but they cannot distinguish one major difference between Tarlov cysts and other cysts: the fact the walls contain nerve fibers. Therefore, the final diagnosis of a Tarlov cyst is not a radiological but rather, a histopathological, diagnosis [13] These cysts are sometimes also misdiagnosed as lumbar disc herniation or lumbar spinal stenosis, especially when they are pressing on the S-1 nerve root.[18]


Because of the unclear pathogenesis and pathophysiology of Tarlov cysts, there is no consensus on the optimal treatment of symptomatic sacral perineural cysts. There are a few treatments available for alleviating the symptoms caused by these cysts, but their effectiveness is debatable. Therefore, operative criteria for regarding Tarlov cysts include: 1) MRI results indicating the existence of sacral perineural cyst; 2) the diameter of cyst is more than 1.5 cm or 0.6 inch; 3) neurological symptoms and signs attributed to sacral perineural cysts that are serious enough to warrant treatment; 4) no or little response to medical and physical therapy, and 5) no contraindications for the surgery.[13] The two major treatment types are the extraction of cerebrospinal fluids from the cyst, and the complete/partial removal of cyst from an infected area. But because the cysts are innervated by definition, a third method of treatment, referred to as sacral laminectomy, in which the cysts are wrapped to excise the fluid has been successful in a number of patients. The morbidity has been seen to be higher on patients that have bilateral cysts on the same spinal level. It had been reported that a positive filling defect and larger cyst size (>1.5 cm or 0.6 inch) is a good indicator for successful treatment outcome.[9][11][13] Although fibrin-glue therapy had been proven to be a promising therapy in the treatment of these cysts, there have been cases of the fibrin seeping back up into the spine, affecting other nerves. It is not recommended for use at present by the Health Department in some countries. Nevertheless, all types of surgical treatment pose common risks, including neurological deficits, infection and inflammation, spinal headache, urinary disturbances, and leakage of cerebrospinal fluids.

Here is an article for treatment of meningeal diverticulum. Feigenbaum F1, Henderson FC. Giant sacral meningeal diverticula: surgical implications of the "thecal tip" sign. Report of two cases. J Neurosurg Spine. 2006 Nov;5(5):443-6.


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  2. ^ Goyal RN, Russell NA, Benoit BG, Belanger JM. Intraspinal cysts: a classification and literature review. Spine 1987;12:209-213
  3. ^ Tarlov Cyst and Infertility; by Pankaj Kumar Singh, with Vinay Kumar Singh, Amir Azam, and Sanjeev Gupta; in J Spinal Cord Med. (archived at the National Institute of Health) Apr 2009; 32(2): 191–197; retrieved March 11, 2014
  4. ^ Nishiura I, Koyama T, Handa J: "Intrasacral perineural cyst." Surg Neurol 23:265 269, 1985
  5. ^ Oaklander AL, Long DM, Larvie M, Davidson CJ (February 28, 2013). "Case 7-2013: A 77-year-old woman with long-standing unilateral thoracic pain and incontinence". New England Journal of Medicine 368: 853–861. doi:10.1056/NEJMcpc1114034. 
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  18. ^ a b Tao Zhang, Zhenhua Li, Weiming Gong, Bingwei Sun, Shuheng Liu, Kai Zhang, Dezhen Yin, Peng Xu, Tanghong Jia (2007) Percutaneous Fibrin Glue Therapy for Meningeal Cysts of the Sacral Spine with or without Aspiration of the Cerebrospinal Fluid. J Neurosur Spine 7: 145-150
  19. ^ Template:Cite web url="https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/tarlov-cysts/" access-date="July 26, 2015"
  20. ^ From "Imagerie par Résonnance Magnétique de la Tête et du rachis" (Case 87,93), kystes méningés rachidiens, pages 684/685, Jean Claude Tamraz, C. Outin, M. Forjaz Secca - 2004, Medical - 717 pages: Springer Verlag.
  21. ^ Principes d'imagerie par résonance magnétique de la tête, de la base du crâne et du rachis, Approche anatomo-clinique et guide d'interprétation, Tamraz, J., Outin, C., Forjaz Secca, M., Soussi, B., 2ieme ed. revue et augmentée, 2004, XII, 717 p., Broché, ISBN 978-2-287-59742-8.
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