Syringomyelia is defined as dilation of the spinal cord’s central canal and is often precipitated by skull base herniation disorders. Although respiratory failure (RF) can be associated with skull base abnormalities due to brainstem compression, most cases occur in pediatric patients and quickly resolve. The authors report the case of an adult patient with global spinal syringomyelia and Chiari malformation who developed refractory RF after routine administration of diazepam.
A 31-year-old female presented with malnutrition, a 1-month history of right-sided weakness, and normal respiratory dynamics. After administration of diazepam prior to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), she suddenly developed hypercapnic RF followed MRI and required intubation. MRI disclosed a Chiari malformation type I and syrinx extending from C1 to the conus medullaris. After decompressive surgery, her respiratory function progressively returned to baseline status, although 22 months after initial benzodiazepine administration, the patient continues to require nocturnal ventilation.
Administration of central nervous system depressants should be closely monitored in patients with extensive syrinx formation given the potential to exacerbate diminished central respiratory drive. Early identification of syrinx in the context of Chiari malformation and hemiplegia should prompt clinical suspicion of underlying respiratory compromise and early involvement of intensive care consultants.