Spontaneous spinal cerebrospinal fluid leaks: a review

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  • Cedars-Sinai Neurosurgical Institute, Los Angeles, and Department of Neurosurgery, University of California, Irvine, California
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Spontaneous intracranial hypotension has become a well-recognized clinical entity, but it remains an uncommonly, and probably underdiagnosed, cause of headache; its estimated prevalence is only one in 50,000 individuals. The clinical spectrum of spontaneous intracranial hypotension is quite variable and includes headache, neck stiffness, cranial nerve dysfunction, radicular arm pain, and symptoms of diencephalic or hindbrain herniation. Leakage of the spinal cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is the most common cause of spontaneous intracranial hypotension. A combination of an underlying weakness of the spinal meninges and a more or less trivial traumatic event is often found to cause this event in these patients. Typical magnetic resonance imaging findings include diffuse pachymeningeal enhancement, sub-dural fluid collections, and downward displacement of the brain, sometimes mimicking a Chiari I malformation. Opening pressure is often, but not always, low, and examination of CSF may reveal pleocytosis, an elevated protein count, and xanthochromia. The use of myelography computerized tomography scanning is the most reliable method for the accurate localization of the CSF leak. Most CSF leaks are found at the cervicothoracic junction or in the thoracic spine. The initial treatment of choice is a lumbar epidural blood patch, regardless of the location of the CSF leak. If the epidural blood patch fails, the blood patch procedure can be repeated at the lumbar level, or a blood patch can be directed at the exact site of the leak. Surgical repair of the CSF leak is safe and generally successful, although a distinct structural cause of the leak often is not found.

Abbreviations used in this paper:

CSF = cerebrospinal fluid; CT = computerized tomography; MR = magnetic resonance.

Spontaneous intracranial hypotension has become a well-recognized clinical entity, but it remains an uncommonly, and probably underdiagnosed, cause of headache; its estimated prevalence is only one in 50,000 individuals. The clinical spectrum of spontaneous intracranial hypotension is quite variable and includes headache, neck stiffness, cranial nerve dysfunction, radicular arm pain, and symptoms of diencephalic or hindbrain herniation. Leakage of the spinal cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is the most common cause of spontaneous intracranial hypotension. A combination of an underlying weakness of the spinal meninges and a more or less trivial traumatic event is often found to cause this event in these patients. Typical magnetic resonance imaging findings include diffuse pachymeningeal enhancement, sub-dural fluid collections, and downward displacement of the brain, sometimes mimicking a Chiari I malformation. Opening pressure is often, but not always, low, and examination of CSF may reveal pleocytosis, an elevated protein count, and xanthochromia. The use of myelography computerized tomography scanning is the most reliable method for the accurate localization of the CSF leak. Most CSF leaks are found at the cervicothoracic junction or in the thoracic spine. The initial treatment of choice is a lumbar epidural blood patch, regardless of the location of the CSF leak. If the epidural blood patch fails, the blood patch procedure can be repeated at the lumbar level, or a blood patch can be directed at the exact site of the leak. Surgical repair of the CSF leak is safe and generally successful, although a distinct structural cause of the leak often is not found.

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