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Subcutaneous emphysema of the neck after shunt surgery for hydrocephalus in a case of metastatic ovarian cancer: illustrative case

Smrithi Sathish, M. Manoranjitha Kumari, Shyama S. Prem, and Gopalakrishnan M. Sasidharan


A 46-year-old female, a patient with a relapsed carcinoma in her ovary, had undergone ventriculoperitoneal (VP) shunt surgery for obstructive hydrocephalus due to vermian metastasis. Two weeks after the shunt surgery, she complained of discomfort in the neck. There was subcutaneous emphysema along the shunt track without tenderness or signs of inflammation. She was afebrile, and her vital parameters were stable.


The authors ruled out pneumothorax and airway trauma as potential sources of emphysema. They tapped the shunt chamber and detected gram-negative bacilli. Ascitic fluid culture grew gas-forming Escherichia coli.


Although some amount of air can get trapped in the subcutaneous plane during the tunneling procedure of a VP shunt tube insertion, the reappearance of a new, large column of air along the shunt track can be an ominous sign of shunt infection. The shunt became contaminated by bacteria of gut origin, which seeded the ascitic fluid, and a florid bacterial growth ascended up the shunt track, producing gas along the subcutaneous plane. Physicians should consider this rare etiology in their differential diagnoses of subcutaneous emphysema following VP shunt surgery.