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Alexander Tuchman, Martin Pham and Patrick C. Hsieh


Delayed or inappropriate treatment of spinal epidural abscess (SEA) can lead to serious morbidity or death. It is a rare event with significant variation in its causes, anatomical locations, and rate of progression. Traditionally the treatment of choice has involved emergency surgical evacuation and a prolonged course of antibiotics tailored to the offending pathogen. Recent publications have advocated antibiotic treatment without surgical decompression in select patient populations. Clearly defining those patients who can be safely treated in this manner remains in evolution. The authors review the current literature concerning the treatment and outcome of SEA to make recommendations concerning what population can be safely triaged to nonoperative management and the optimal timing of surgery.


A PubMed database search was performed using a combination of search terms and Medical Subject Headings, to identify clinical studies reporting on the treatment and outcome of SEA.


The literature review revealed 28 original case series containing at least 30 patients and reporting on treatment and outcome. All cohorts were deemed Class III evidence, and in all but two the data were obtained retrospectively. Based on the conclusions of these studies along with selected smaller studies and review articles, the authors present an evidence-based algorithm for selecting patients who may be safe candidates for nonoperative management.


Patients who are unable to undergo an operation, have a complete spinal cord injury more than 48 hours with low clinical or radiographic concern for an ascending lesion, or who are neurologically stable and lack risk factors for failure of medical management may be initially treated with antibiotics alone and close clinical monitoring. If initial medical management is to be undertaken the patient should be made aware that delayed neurological deterioration may not fully resolve even after prompt surgical treatment. Patients deemed good surgical candidates should receive their operation as soon as possible because the rate of clinical deterioration with SEA is notoriously unpredictable. Although patients tend to recover from neurological deficits after treatment of SEA, the time point when a neurological injury becomes irreversible is unknown, supporting emergency surgery in those patients with acute findings.