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Balint Otvos, Varun R. Kshettry and Edward C. Benzel

In 1919, it was observed that intravascular osmolar shifts could collapse the thecal sac and diminish the ability to withdraw CSF from the lumbar cistern. This led to the notion that hyperosmolar compounds could ameliorate brain swelling. Since then, various therapeutic interventions have been used for the reduction of intracranial pressure and brain volume.

Urea was first used as an osmotic agent for the reduction of brain volume in 1950. It was associated with greater efficacy and consistency than alternatives such as hyperosmolar glucose. Its use became the standard of clinical practice by 1957, in both the intensive care unit and operating room, to reduce intracranial pressure and brain bulk and was the first hyperosmolar compound to have widespread use. However, the prime of urea was rather short lived. Reports of side effects and complications associated with urea emerged. These included coagulopathy, hemoglobinuria, electrocardiography changes, tissue necrosis with extravasation, and a significant potential for rebound intracranial hypertension.

Mannitol was introduced in 1961 as a comparable and potentially superior alternative to urea. However, mannitol was initially purported to be less effective at rapidly reducing intracranial pressure. The debate over the two compounds continued for a decade until mannitol eventually replaced urea by the late 1960s and early 1970s as the hyperosmolar agent of choice due to the ease of preparation, chemical stability, and decreased side effect profile.

Although urea is not currently the standard of care today, its rise and eventual replacement by mannitol played a seminal role in both our understanding of cerebral edema and the establishment of strategies for its management.