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Spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak

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Spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak
The spinal meninges of the central nervous system. The dura mater and arachnoid mater hold in CSF and are impacted by SCSFLS.
Classification and external resources
Specialty neurology
ICD-10 G96.0, G97.0
ICD-9-CM 339.8, 348.4, 349.0, 792.0
MedlinePlus 001068

Spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak syndrome (SCSFLS) is a medical condition in which the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) held in and around a human brain and spinal cord leaks out of the surrounding protective sac, the dura, for no apparent reason. The dura, a tough, inflexible tissue, is the outermost of the three layers of the meninges, the system of meninges surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

A spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak is one of several types of cerebrospinal fluid leaks and occurs due to the presence of one or more holes in the dura. A spontaneous CSF leak, as opposed to traumatically caused CSF leaks, arises idiopathically. A loss of CSF greater than its rate of production leads to a decreased volume inside the skull known as intracranial hypotension. A CSF leak is most often characterized by orthostatic headaches — headaches that worsen in a vertical position and improve when lying down. Other symptoms can include neck pain or stiffness, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, and a metallic taste in the mouth (indicative of a cranial leak), among others. A CT scan can identify the site of a cerebrospinal fluid leakage. Once identified, the leak can often be repaired by an epidural blood patch, an injection of the patient's own blood at the site of the leak, fibrin glue injection or surgery.

SCSFLS afflicts 5 out of every 100,000 people. On average, the condition is developed at the age of 42, and women are twice as likely as men to develop the condition. Some people with SCSFLS chronically leak cerebrospinal fluid despite repeated attempts at patching, leading to long-term disability due to pain. SCSFLS was first described by German neurologist Georg Schaltenbrand in 1938 and by American physician Henry Woltman of the Mayo Clinic in the 1950s.


SCSFLS is classified into two main types, cranial leaks[1] and spinal leaks.[2] The vast majority of leaks are spinal.[3] Cranial leaks occur in the head. In some of these cases, CSF can be seen dripping out of the nose,[4][5] or ear.[1] Spinal leaks occur when one or more holes form in the dura along the spinal cord.[2] Both cranial and spinal spontaneous CSF leaks cause neurological symptoms as well as spontaneous intracranial hypotension, diminished volume and pressure of the cranium.[6] While referred to as intracranial hypotension, the intracranial pressure may be normal, with the underlying issue instead being low-volume CSF. For this reason SCSFLS is referred to as CSF hypovolemia as opposed to CSF hypotension.[7][8][9][10]

Signs and symptoms[edit]

Symptoms resulting from nerve impact[11]
Nerve Function Symptoms
optic nerve
blurred and or
double vision
chorda tympani
(Branch of 7)
taste taste distortion
facial nerve facial weakness
and numbness
hearing and
balance problems
taste taste distortion

Most people who develop SCSFLS feel a sudden onset of a severe and acute headache.[10][12] It is a headache usually but not necessarily orthostatic (worse when standing), typically becoming prominent throughout the day, in which usually the pain is worse when the person is vertical and less severe when horizontal.[13] Orthostatic headaches can be incapacitating;[14][15] these ailments often become chronic and can be sufficiently disabling to make those afflicted unable to work.[10][15][16] Some patients with CSF leak will develop headaches that begin in the afternoon. This is known as second-half-of-the-day headache. This may be an initial presentation of CSF leak or appear after treatment and likely indicates a slow CSF leak.[17]

Apart from headache, about 50% of patients experience neck pain or stiffness, nausea, and vomiting.[18] Other symptoms include dizziness and vertigo, facial numbness or weakness, unusually blurry or double vision, neuralgia, fatigue, or a metallic taste in the mouth.[10] Leaking CSF can sometimes be felt or observed as discharge through the nose or ear.[19]

Lack of CSF pressure and volume allows the brain to descend through the foramen magnum, or occipital bone, the large opening at the base of the skull. The lower portion of the brain is believed to stretch or impact one or more cranial nerve complexes, thereby causing a variety of sensory symptoms. Nerves that can be affected and their related symptoms are detailed in the table at right.[10][11][16]


The two main theories as to the underlying cause of SCSFLS are as a result of a connective tissue disorder or spinal drainage problems.

Connective tissue theory[edit]

A spontaneous CSF leak is idiopathic, meaning the cause in unknown.[16][20] Various scientists and physicians have suggested that this condition may be the result of an underlying connective tissue disorder affecting the spinal dura.[10][11][21][22] It may also run in families and be associated with aortic aneurysms and joint hypermobility.[11][23] Up to two thirds of those afflicted demonstrate some type of generalized connective tissue disorder.[11][22] Marfan syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease are the three most common connective tissue disorders associated with SCSFLS.[11]

Roughly 20% of patients with SCSFLS exhibit features of Marfan syndrome, including tall stature, chest divot (pectus excavatum), joint hypermobility and arched palate. However these patients do not exhibit any other Marfan syndrome presentations.[11]

Spinal drainage theory[edit]

Some other studies have proposed that issues with the spinal venous drainage system may cause a CSF leak.[24] According to this theory, dural holes and intracranial hypotension are symptoms caused by low pressure in the epidural space due to outflow to the heart through the inferior vena cava vein.[24]

Other causes[edit]

Patients with a nude (absent) nerve root are at increased risk for developing recurrent CSF leaks.[25] Cranial CSF leaks are as a result of intracranial hypertension in a vast majority of cases. The increased pressure causes a rupture of the cranial dura mater, leading to CSF leak and intracranial hypotension.[26][27] Lumbar disc herniation has been reported to cause CSF leak in at least one case.[28] Degenerative spinal disc diseases cause a disc to pierce the dura mater, leading to a CSF leak.[11]

Another view of the cause of orthostatic headaches proposes a malformed distribution of craniospinal elasticity as a result of the collapse of the lower spine's CSF space resulting in the collapse of the dura sac.[11]


Cerebrospinal fluid is produced by the choroid plexus in the ventricles of the brain and contained by the dura and arachnoid layers of the meninges.[10][21][29] The brain floats in CSF, which also transports nutrients to the brain and spinal cord. As holes form in the spinal dura mater, CSF leaks out into the surrounding space. The CSF is then absorbed into the spinal epidural venous plexus or soft tissues around the spine.[11][30] Due to the sterile conditions of the soft tissues around the spine there is no risk of meningitis.[11]


The primary place of first complaint to a physician is a hospital emergency room.[12][31] Up to 94% of those suffering from SCSFLS are initially misdiagnosed. Incorrect diagnoses include migraines, meningitis, Chiari malformation and psychiatric disorders. The average time from onset of symptoms until definitive diagnosis is 13 months.[32] A study found a 0% success rate for proper diagnosis in the emergency department.[31]

Diagnosis of CSF leak can be done through various imaging techniques, chemical tests of bodily fluid discharged from a head orifice, or clinical exam. The use of CT, MRI, and assays are the most common types of CSF leak instrumental tests. Many CSF leaks do not show up on imaging and chemical assays, thus such diagnostic tools are not definitive to rule out CSF leaks. A clinician may often depend upon patient history and exam to diagnose, for example: discharge of excessive amount of clear fluid from the nose upon bending over, the increase in headache following a Valsalva maneuver or the reduction of headache when the patient takes a prone position are positive indicators.

Clinical exam is often used means to diagnose CSF leaks. Improved patient response to conservative treatment may further define a positive diagnosis. The lack of clinician awareness of the signs -symptoms and ailments- of a CSF leak is the greatest challenge to proper diagnosis and treatment, in particular: the loss of the orthostatic characteristic of headache and that every chronic CSF leaker will have a unique symptom set that as a whole contributes to the underlying condition, and diagnosis of, a CSF leak.


Diagnosis of a cerebrospinal fluid leak is performed through a combination of measurement of the CSF pressure and a computed tomography myelogram (CTM) scan of the spinal column for fluid leaks.[11] The opening fluid pressure in the spinal canal is obtained by performing a lumbar puncture, also known as a spinal tap. Once the pressure is measured, radiopaque contrast material is injected into the spinal fluid. The contrast then diffuses out through the dura sac before leaking through dural holes. This allows for a CTM with fluoroscopy to locate and image any sites of dura rupture via contrast seen outside the dura sac in the imagery.[10][19][21]


Magnetic resonance imaging is less effective than CT at directly imaging sites of CSF leak. MRI studies may show pachymeningeal enhancement (when the dura mater looks thick and inflamed), sagging of the brain, pituitary enlargement, subdural hygromas, engorgement of cerebral venous sinuses, and other abnormalities.[18] For 20% of patients, MRIs present as completely normal.[18] There is disagreement over whether MRI should be the study of choice.[18][11][21] MRIs performed with the patient seated upright (vs. laying supine) are not better for diagnosing CSF leaks,[31] but are more than twice as effective at diagnosing cerebellar tonsillar ectopia, aka Chiari malformation.[33] Cerebellar tonsillar ectopia shares many of the same symptoms as CSF leak,[34] but originates either congenitally or from trauma, including whiplash strain to the dura.[33]

An alternate method of locating the site of a CSF leak is to use heavily T2-weighted MR myelography.[11] This has been effective in identifying the sites of a CSF leak without the need for a CT scan, lumbar puncture, and contrast and at locating fluid collections such as CSF pooling.[35] Another highly successful method of locating a CSF leak is intrathecal contrast and MR Myelography.[11]


When cranial CSF leak is suspected because of discharge from the nose or ear that is potentially CSF, the fluid can be collected and tested with a beta-2 transferrin assay.[36] This test can positively identify if the fluid is cerebrospinal fluid.[36]

CSF analysis[edit]

Spinal needles used in lumbar puncture and introduction of contrast into the spine

Patients with CSF leak have been noted to have very low or even negative opening pressures. However, patients with confirmed CSF leaks may also demonstrate completely normal opening pressures. In 18–46% of cases, the CSF pressure is measured within the normal range.[11][37][38][39] Analysis of spinal fluid may demonstrate lymphocytic pleocytosis and elevated protein content or xanthochromia. This is hypothesized to be due to increased permeability of dilated meningeal blood vessels and a decrease of CSF flow in the lumbar subarachnoid space.[11]

Clinical presentation[edit]

The diagnostic criteria for SCSFLS is based on the 2004 International Classification of Headache Disorders, 2nd edn (ICHD-II) (Table 1) (50) criteria. However, the presentation of patients with confirmed diagnosis may be very different from that of the clinical diagnostic criteria and cannot be considered authoritative.[11]


Initial measures can include rest, caffeine intake (via coffee or intravenous infusion), and hydration.[18] Corticosteroids may provide transient relief for some patients.[18] An abdominal binder — a type of garment that increases intracranial pressure by compressing the abdomen — can temporarily relieve symptoms for some people.[40]

Epidural blood patch[edit]

The epidural syringe is filled with autologous blood and injected in the epidural space in order to close holes in the dura mater.

The treatment of choice for this condition is the surgical application of epidural blood patches,[14][41][42] which has a higher success rate than conservative treatments of bed rest and hydration.[43] Through the injection of a person's own blood into the area of the hole in the dura, an epidural blood patch uses blood's clotting factors to clot the sites of holes. The volume of autologous blood and number of patch attempts for patients is highly variable.[14] One-quarter to one-third of SCSFLS patients do not have relief of symptoms from epidural blood patching.[11]

Fibrin glue sealant[edit]

If blood patches alone do not succeed in closing the dural tears, placement of percutaneous fibrin glue can be used in place of blood patching, raising the effectiveness of forming a clot and arresting CSF leakage.[2][11][11][44]

Surgical drain technique[edit]

In extreme cases of intractable CSF leak, a surgical lumbar drain has been used.[45][46][47] This procedure is believed to decrease spinal CSF volume while increasing intracranial CSF pressure and volume.[45] This procedure restores normal intracranial CSF volume and pressure while promoting the healing of dural tears by lowering the pressure and volume in the dura.[45][47] This procedure has led to positive results leading to relief of symptoms for up to one year.[45][46]

Neurosurgical repair[edit]

For patients that do not respond to either epidural blood patching or fibrin glue, neurosurgery is available to directly repair leaking meningeal diverticula. The areas of dura leak can be tied together in a process called ligation and then a metal clip can be placed in order to hold the ligation closed.[11] Alternatively, a small compress called a muscle pledget can be placed over the dura leak and then sealed with gel foam and fibrin glue.[11] Primary suturing is rarely able to repair a CSF leak, and in some patients exploration of the dura may be required to properly locate all sites of CSF leak.[11]


Final outcomes for people with SCSFLS remain poorly studied.[11] Symptoms may resolve in as little as two weeks, or persist for months.[18] Less commonly, patients may suffer from unremitting symptoms for many years.[10][21][48][18] People with chronic SCSFLS may be disabled and unable to work.[11][15] Recurrent CSF leak at an alternate site after recent repair is common.[49]


Arnold-Chiari malformation is a condition where the cerebellar tonsils have descended, and should be considered in differential diagnosis of SCSFLS

Several complications can occur as a result of SCSFLS including decreased cranial pressure, brain herniation, infection, blood pressure problems, transient paralysis, and coma. The primary and most serious complication of SCSFLS is spontaneous intracranial hypotension, where pressure in the brain is severely decreased.[10][21][50] This complication leads to the hallmark symptom of severe orthostatic headaches.[11][50]

People with cranial CSF leaks, the rarer form, have a 10% risk of developing meningitis per year.[36] If cranial leaks last more than seven days, the chances of developing meningitis are significantly higher.[36] Spinal CSF leaks cannot result in meningitis due to the sterile conditions of the leak site.[11] When a CSF leak occurs at the temporal bone surgery becomes necessary in order to prevent infection and repair the leak.[51] Orthostatic hypotension is another complication that occurs due to autonomic dysfunction when blood pressure drops significantly.[48] The autonomic dysfunction is caused by compression of the brainstem, which controls breathing and circulation.[48]

Low CSF volume can cause the cerebellar tonsil position to descend, which can be mistaken for Chiari malformation; however when the CSF leak is repaired the tonsil position often returns to normal (as seen in upright MRI) in this "pseudo-Chiari" condition.[52] A further, albeit rare, complication of CSF leak is transient quadriplegia due to a sudden and significant loss of CSF. This loss results in hindbrain herniation and causes major compression of the upper cervical spinal cord. The quadriplegia dissipates once the patient lies supine.[53][53] An extremely rare complication of SCSFLS is third nerve palsy, where the ability to move one's eyes becomes difficult and interrupted due to compression of the third cranial nerve.[54]

There are documented cases of reversible frontotemporal dementia and coma.[55] Coma due to a CSF leak has been successfully treated by using blood patches and/or fibrin glue and placing the patient in the Trendelenburg position.[56] Empty sella syndrome, a boney structure that surround the pituitary gland, occurs in CSF leak patients.[26][57]


A 1994 community-based study indicated that two out of every 100,000 people suffered from SCSFLS, while a 2004 emergency room-based study indicated five per 100,000.[11][21] SCSFLS generally affects the young and middle aged;[45] the average age for onset is 42.3 years, but onset can range from ages 22 to 61.[58] In an 11-year study women were found to be twice as likely to be affected as men.[59][60]

Studies have shown that SCSFLS runs in families and it is suspected that genetic similarity in families includes weakness in the dura mater, which leads to SCSFLS.[11][61] Large scale population-based studies have not yet been conducted.[21] While a majority of SCSFLS cases continue to be undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, an actual increase in occurrence is unlikely.[21]


Spontaneous CSF leaks have been described by notable physicians and reported in medical journals dating back to the early 1900s.[62][63] German neurologist Georg Schaltenbrand reported in 1938 and 1953 what he termed "aliquorrhea", a condition marked by very low, unobtainable, or even negative CSF pressures. The symptoms included orthostatic headaches and other features that are now recognized as spontaneous intracranial hypotension. A few decades earlier, the same syndrome had been described in French literature as "hypotension of spinal fluid" and "ventricular collapse". In 1940, Henry Woltman of the Mayo Clinic wrote about "headaches associated with decreased intracranial pressure". The full clinical manifestations of intracranial hypotension and CSF leaks were described in several publications reported between the 1960s and early 1990s.[63] Modern reports of spontaneous CSF leak have been reported to medical journals since the late 1980s.[64]


IV Cosyntropin, a corticosteroid that causes the brain to produce additional spinal fluid to replace the volume of the lost CSF and alleviate symptoms, has been used to treat CSF leaks.[65][66]

In two small studies of two patients and another with one patient suffering from recurrent CSF leaks where repeated blood patches failed to form clots and relieve symptoms, the patients received temporary but complete resolution of symptoms with an epidural saline infusion.[67][68] The saline infusion temporarily restores the volume necessary for a patient to avoid SIH until the leak can be repaired properly.[11] Intrathecal saline infusion is used in urgent cases such as intractable pain or decreased consciousness.[11]

The gene TGFBR2 has been implicated in several connective tissue disorders including Marfan syndrome, arterial tortuosity, and thoracic aortic aneurysm. A study of patients with SCSFLS demonstrated no mutations in this gene.[11] Minor features of Marfan syndrome has been found in 20% of CSF leak patients. Abnormal findings of fibrillin-1 has been documented in these CSF-leak patients, but only one patient demonstrated a fibrillin-1 defect consistent with Marfan syndrome.[11][69]

See also[edit]


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