Cerebral Spinal Fluid Leak Disorders

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Continuing Education Activity

Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leakage denotes a compromise in the integrity of the central nervous system and predisposes it to environmental stressors like infections and direct injury to the parenchyma, which hampers its normal functioning. Therefore, CSF leak is an extremely important entity to detect and treat. A CSF leak may sometimes point towards underlying pathologies like skull base fractures and tumors that cause increased intracranial pressure. This activity discusses the etiology, pathophysiology, clinical findings, evaluation, and management of CSF leak disorders and attempts to simplify the understanding of these disorders.


  • Describe the etiology and pathogenesis of CSF leak disorders.
  • Discuss the epidemiology of traumatic and non-traumatic causes of CSF leak.
  • Outline the steps in the evaluation of a patient presenting with a CSF leak.
  • Summarizing the treatment protocol for the various etiologies producing a CSF leak, as used by the interprofessional team.


The cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) acts as a nourishing and protective layer surrounding the central nervous system. This protective cushion circulates within the ventricular system and the subarachnoid space around the brain and the spinal cord, which helps to provide the buoyancy to counteract various shear and stress encountered during the movement of the skull and vertebral column.[1]

In various disorders that present with CSF leak, the loss of this protective nutrient-rich layer can injure the function of the brain and the spinal cord. Such conditions might be associated with fractures in the skull base, congenital bony defects, or might be associated with raised intracranial pressure (ICP). It also predisposes the brain and spinal cord to the external environment increasing the risk of meningitis, ventriculitis, and arachnoiditis.  

The traditional concept of CSF formation, distribution, and absorption was previously based on the bulk flow model. However, this model seems inadequate to explain the pathophysiological mechanisms of various CSF flow-related disorders based on recent literature. The currently accepted CSF flow system comprises pulsatile CSF flow, lymphatic system, capillary exchange, and the traditional ventricular-cisternal system. According to the current understanding, the production of CSF is from multiple sources, primarily from the choroid plexus of the lateral and fourth ventricles. Apart from this, interstitial space, ependyma, and dural sleeves of the spinal nerve roots also contribute to the total CSF turnover.[2]

Similarly, CSF is absorbed in multiple sites, with dural venous sinuses being the major drainage site via arachnoid granulations followed by choroid plexus and glymphatic system.[3]


Cranial CSF leaks can manifest either in the form of rhinorrhea or otorrhea. The leaks often present as rhinorrhea unless the tympanic membrane is defective and will present as otorrhea. The communication site may exist at the anterior skull base, including frontal and ethmoidal air cells, middle skull base, including sphenoid or mastoid air cells, and the posterior fossa, including the mastoid air cells and the middle ear. The most likely etiology underlying these abnormal defects is traumatic, out of which the most common mechanism is motor vehicle accidents, especially in moderate to high-velocity trauma. Following motor vehicle accidents, blunt trauma to the head can lead to skull base fractures, presenting as CSF rhinorrhoea.[4] 

Other common causes include iatrogenic defects following neurosurgical procedures like opening the sphenoid sinus in trans-sphenoidal surgeries or opening the mastoid air cells in posterior fossa surgeries. A small proportion of cases are caused by non-traumatic etiologies, which may be associated with raised ICP like hydrocephalus or intracranial space-occupying lesion or normal ICP like congenital defects, focal atrophy, or post-infection bony erosions. Similarly, spinal CSF leaks may follow traumatic or iatrogenic communication between spinal subarachnoid space and the external environment.


Approximately 90% of the CSF leaks are attributable to traumatic causes, with a vast majority having fractures of the skull base.[5] However, only 10 to 30% of skull base fractures are reported to present with a CSF leak. On the other hand, non-traumatic causes are less common. These primarily occur in adults more than 30 years of age and are rare in children less than two years.[6] Spontaneous CSF leaks tend to be more common among obese middle-aged females.[7][8][9]


Among the traumatic causes of CSF leak, blunt trauma is more common than penetrating injuries, affecting the anterior skull base more frequently than the middle or posterior skull base.[10] Out of these, fracture of the frontal sinus is the most common culprit causing CSF leak. On the other hand, head blunt trauma involving the middle cranial fossa can cause rhinorrhea or otorrhea. In these middle cranial fossa cases, rupture of the tympanic membrane is an essential pathophysiologic intermediate for otorrhea to manifest. However, not all skull base fractures result in CSF leak, which depends on the interplay of several variables like raised ICP, arachnoidal disruption, dural injury, and the size of the bony defect. Penetrating injuries are associated with a higher rate of CSF leak and more complications like meningitis and higher mortality.[4]

Among the non-traumatic causes of high-pressure CSF leaks, there is generally thinning and resorption of the bone at the skull base and thinning of the dural layer, which over time results in communication with the subarachnoid space. One such condition is idiopathic intracranial hypertension, frequently in young to middle-aged obese women and is associated with sellar floor erosions resulting in spontaneous CSF rhinorrhoea. Similarly, among the non-traumatic causes with normal ICP, there is usually a congenitally bone and dura defect or one secondary to infective or inflammatory pathologies.[11]

History and Physical

A clear watery discharge from the nose or ears, usually in the setting of recent trauma or surgery, is the most common presentation of cranial CSF leaks. In some cases, headaches can be associated with a clear watery discharge, which occurs due to intracranial hypotension due to the loss of CSF. This headache is positional in most cases, increasing in an upright position and relieved on lying down. Anosmia in patients with CSF leak should point towards a traumatic cause, usually involving injury to the ethmoid bone.[12] 

Depending on the injury site, some patients might even present with hearing loss that might be conductive or sensorineural. Spinal leaks are usually associated with postoperative wound complications, and they also present with symptoms attributable to intracranial hypotension similar to cranial CSF leaks.


The first step in evaluating a patient with a suspected CSF leak is to confirm that the fluid in question is CSF. Several tests can differentiate CSF from other fluids, and the most useful ones are listed below.

  1. Beta-2-transferrin: It is the most specific test as beta-2-transferrin is found only in the CSF (and the vitreous fluid of the eye); therefore, its presence is strongly suggestive of CSF.[13]
  2. Glucose levels: Normal CSF glucose is 50 to 80 mg/100 mL (or greater than two-thirds of blood sugar level) (except in cases with hypoglycorrhachia like meningitis) compared to <5 mg/100 mL in other secretions like tears and mucus. Though not as sensitive and specific as beta-2-transferrin levels, it still carries a good negative predictive value.
  3. Halo sign: In traumatic cases of CSF leak, the fluid is blood-tinged and thus, when allowed to drop on linen, gives a central disc of blood and a peripheral ring of clear fluid.
  4. Reservoir sign: There is copious drainage of fluid in a particular head position, especially when the patient becomes upright after a long period of lying down. It is a non-specific test but can still be suggestive of CSF.[14]

Once there is confirmation that the leaking fluid is CSF only, the next step is to localize the leak site. This can be done with the help of the following modalities.

  1. CT: Various signs to be looked for in CT scan include skull base fractures and defects, tumors, hydrocephalus, and pneumocephalus.[15] A non-contrast high-resolution CT scan can help detect fractures and defects in the skull base and is usually sufficient. A contrast-enhanced CT scan may help localize the leakage site because sometimes there is an abnormal enhancement of the adjacent brain parenchyma due to inflammation in chronic CSF leak.
  2. CT cisternography: It is the procedure of choice for localization of the leak site. It involves thin-slice computed tomography after 5 to 10 mL of iodinated non-ionic contrast material is administered via lumbar puncture. It is especially helpful in cases where a CT scan shows no bony defects, multiple bony defects (to determine which defect is actively leaking), or if a bony defect is not associated with changes in the adjacent brain parenchyma. The commonest site of CSF rhinorrhea is the junction of the cribriform plate and ethmoid bone.[7][8][10]
  3. MRI: It helps better identify posterior fossa space-occupying lesions and empty sella in cases of idiopathic intracranial hypertension. It is also helpful in cases with intracranial hypotension to demonstrate characteristic signs like sagging of the brain, pachymeningeal enhancement, engorgement of veins, pituitary hyperemia, subdural fluid collections, etc.[16][17][18][19]
  4. MR cisternography: T1 fat suppression and T2 images before and after intrathecal gadolinium administration has been shown to have greater accuracy than CT cisternography.

Treatment / Management

The management of CSF leaks should be tailored according to the underlying etiology. As many traumatic leaks cease spontaneously, it is advisable to wait and watch for a short time. If the leakage persists, the first step involves conservative non-invasive management by interventions that lower the ICP. These include recumbency, cerebral decongestants like acetazolamide, avoiding straining exercises, and not blowing the nose. The presence of significant dural defects, bony spicules, comorbidities, extremes of age reduce the chances of spontaneous healing of CSF leaks.[4]

For persistent leaks, drainage of CSF via repeated lumbar puncture or continuous lumbar drainage via percutaneous catheter can be done. However, for the non-traumatic causes or for iatrogenic trauma during surgery, the likelihood of resolution with conservative management is lower. Nonetheless, an initial trial of conservative management followed by CSF diversion is instituted. Iatrogenic CSF leak during posterior fossa surgeries can be prevented by meticulous watertight dural closure and obliteration of air cells with bone wax or using a muscle patch with fibrin glue.

CSF Diversion Strategies

If conservative strategies fail, continuous or intermittent CSF drainage using a lumbar drain is done. Continuous drainage is usually done at the rate of 5 to 10 ml/hr (150 to 200 ml/day), while for intermittent drainage protocol, 20 to 30 ml of CSF is drained every 4 hours. Caution should be maintained to prevent over-drainage. A trial of CSF diversion is generally continued for 5 to 7 days. Failure in control of the CSF leak warrants surgical management. In the scenario where conservative measures fail, surgical management is indicated irrespective of the leak's etiology. The surgical procedure and approach are tailored depending on the site of the leak. 

Timing of Surgery

The decision to proceed with definitive surgical management depends on the etiology and presentation timing concerning the initial insult. Early surgery without trial of conservative management or CSF diversion is indicated in patients suffering from penetrating injury like gunshot wounds, meningitis, pneumocephalus, large identifiable bony defect, external herniation of brain parenchyma through the wound. An initial trial of conservative management followed by CSF diversion is instituted in the remaining cases, and delayed definitive surgical management is planned if the above measures fail.


Cranial CSF Leaks

The traditional approach is a transcranial repair of skull base defects. For defects in the anterior cranial fossa, a bicoronal scalp flap is raised along with harvesting a pedicled pericranial flap. After performing a bifrontal craniotomy, the leak site is identified, and a combined intra and extradural repair are performed.[20] An autologous graft like temporal fascia or fascia lata is used intradural secured with fibrin glue and non-absorbable sutures along with pedicled pericranial flap being placed extradural at the defect site to achieve a watertight dural seal. In cases where the autologous graft is unavailable, artificial dural substitutes can be used. For the leaks originating in the middle and posterior fossa, a surgical repair is usually not required as the rate of spontaneous closure is higher. However, if needed, a subtemporal approach is preferred for a longitudinal petrous temporal fracture. For a transverse fracture, a translabyrinthine or posterior fossa approach is taken depending on hearing status, which is preserved in the latter.[21]

Endoscopic repair of CSF leak has gained popularity, especially for anterior and middle skull base repairs owing to the panoramic view and better visualization of the defect site. Central leaks are managed using an endonasal trans-ethmoid or transseptal approach, while the transpterygoid approach is used for lateral leaks. After the leak site is identified, the placement of an appropriately sized graft completes the procedure.

Spinal CSF Leaks

Wound re-exploration with identification of the leak site is made. It can be repaired primarily or using a free graft reinforced with fibrin glue. A meticulous fascial closure in layers is paramount in achieving closure of the spinal CSF fistula.

Graft Placement Technique

A choice exists between the graft placement in the subdural and the extradural space. It is termed as underlay/inlay technique when placed subdurally, which can be achieved only during a transcranial repair. On the other hand, the overlay/onlay technique is defined as the placement of a graft over the dural defect from the extradural side, either done transcranially or endoscopically. Current literature supports the results of either technique. Many surgeons prefer using a combination of both to achieve better results.

Graft Materials

These can be classified as autologous and dural substitutes. The autologous grafts can be further classified as free grafts or pedicled grafts. Free grafts include fascia lata, free fat graft, free mucosal graft, free pericranial graft, and free temporalis fascia. Pedicled grafts include pedicled pericranial flap, pedicled muscle flap, and pedicled nasoseptal graft. The last decade has witnessed good success rates using a pedicled nasoseptal graft called Hadad-Bassagasteguy flap based on a nasoseptal branch of the sphenopalatine artery during the endoscopic repair. Schwartz et al. described the "gasket seal closure," which includes the use of autologous fascia lata with a bony buttress further reinforced with fibrin glue.[22]

Differential Diagnosis

The major differentials to cranial CSF leaks include other disorders that can result in watery nasal or ear discharge, which is not CSF. These can be infectious etiologies like the common cold or allergic etiologies like allergic rhinitis. Ruling out such mimics is more pertinent among patients with no history of trauma or previous surgery. As highlighted in the evaluation section earlier, it is important to confirm that the leaking fluid is CSF using clinical signs like reservoir or halo sign and laboratory tests like beta-2 transferrin.


Many CSF leaks, especially traumatic causes, resolve spontaneously and are associated with a good prognosis. Among the remaining patients, more than 90% resolve with surgical repair. Meningitis may complicate the clinical course in a small proportion of cases which may worsen the prognosis, especially among the late-onset CSF leaks. Prognosis is guarded among patients needing repeated surgical procedures due to the added surgical morbidity and the additional risk of meningitis.


Meningitis is the most common complication associated with CSF leak and is seen in 25 to 30% of patients. The risk is significantly higher among patients with a delayed onset of the leak in the range of 50 to 60% compared to 5 to 10% in the patients with early-onset. It is also more common in patients with penetrating injuries. There is no proven role of antibiotics in patients with no clinical evidence of meningitis.[23] In patients with evidence of meningitis, empirical antibiotics must be started, followed by culture-based antibiotics after the microbial culture and sensitivity are available. The most common pathogens include Streptococcus pneumoniae and Hemophilus influenzae.[24]

Polymicrobial and anaerobic infections can occur in cases with penetrating injuries. CSF over-drainage is a common complication following CSF diversion procedures like lumbar drain insertion. This leads to sagging of the brain parenchyma, which can lead to injury to bridging veins and result in a subdural hematoma. Hence, following any CSF diversion procedure, controlling CSF drainage, and preventing intracranial hypotension is very important.


  • Neurosurgery
  • Neuroradiologist
  • Otolaryngologist

Deterrence and Patient Education

There is a need for public health education regarding warning signs heralding meningitis like fever, headache, neck rigidity, photophobia, etc. Further awareness must be raised on identifying true CSF leaks masquerading as innocuous pathologies like allergic rhinitis or common cold. General awareness regarding the prevention of trauma and obesity may also help decrease the incidence of CSF leaks.

Pearls and Other Issues

  1. Spontaneous closure of early post-traumatic CSF leak is seen in 60 to 70% of patients.
  2. The commonest site of CSF rhinorrhea is the junction of the cribriform plate and ethmoid bone. 
  3. The presence of large dural defects, bony spicules, comorbidities, extremes of age reduces the chances of spontaneous healing of CSF leaks. 
  4. The most sensitive and specific investigation to detect CSF leaks is the beta-2 transferrin assay.
  5. In case of a dubious leak or suspected multiple defects, MR cisternography should be combined with a high-resolution CT scan to increase the accuracy of detection of the leak site. 
  6. Surgical management of cranial CSF leaks includes overlay or underlay techniques performed transcranially or endoscopically.
  7. The use of prophylactic antibiotics has not been proven to prevent meningitis in CSF leaks.

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

CSF leak is a common condition due to traumatic and non-traumatic etiologies requiring an integrated multidisciplinary team consisting of a neurosurgeon, neuroradiologist, nurse practitioner, and laboratory technician. Many of these patients have associated trauma and require intensive care therapy and rehabilitative services. CSF leaks associated with specific underlying comorbidities like obesity need tailored specialty referrals like dieticians for dietary and lifestyle modifications.

Article Details

Article Author

Ravi Sharma

Article Editor:

Orlando De Jesus


10/3/2022 12:24:17 AM



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