Subdural empyema is a type of intracranial infection characterized by a suppurative collection between the dura mater and arachnoid mater. It is commonly seen as a complication of sinusitis, otitis, mastoiditis, or surgical intervention.
On imaging, it tends to present as a subdural collection, crescentic in shape, with marked meningeal enhancement and, on MRI, typically demonstrates restricted diffusion.
Subdural empyemas account for approximately 20-33% of all intracranial infections.
Clinical presentation depends to some degree on the etiology. When empyemas result from sinusitis or mastoiditis they are often associated with seizures, focal neurological deficits and rapid deterioration of consciousness, progressing from obtundation to coma 1. Empyemas that occur secondary to prior trauma or surgery are usually more clinically indolent.
In the most common scenario, patients develop subdural empyemas as a result of frontal sinusitis. There are two putative mechanisms of spread 3:
- direct extension
- indirect: secondary to thrombophlebitis
Direct spread, resulting from erosion of the posterior wall of the frontal sinus (the corollary of Pott puffy tumor) is relatively uncommon. Thrombophlebitis of communicating veins is thought to be the most common cause of spread 3.
- frontal sinusitis: vast majority
- mastoiditis/otitis media
- surgical intervention
- seeding of existing subdural hematoma
CT is usually the first investigation performed and often is the only one required, as patients usually expediently proceed to the surgical theater for evacuation.
Subdural empyemas typically resemble subdural hematomas in their shape and the relationship to sutures and dural reflections. They are typically crescentic in shape (compared to epidural empyemas which are typically lentiform), although collection pockets may appear biconvex (see case 1). A surrounding membrane that enhances intensely and uniformly following contrast administration is typical.
Appearance on MRI is similar to that on CT, although contrast enhancement is more readily detected. Furthermore, the content of the collection will typically demonstrate restricted diffusion (see case 1).
MRI is also more sensitive to the complications of subdural empyemas, e.g. cerebritis, cerebral abscess, and venous thrombosis.
Treatment and prognosis
Mortality associated with subdural empyemas now approaches 10%, compared with approximately 15-40% in the pre-CT era 1.
Successful treatment is predicated on prompt diagnosis, followed by surgical evacuation of the collection and administration of appropriate antibiotics.
Complications are relatively common and may be the cause of presentation. They include:
- 1. Sadhu VK, Handel SF, Pinto RS et-al. Neuroradiologic diagnosis of subdural empyema and CT limitations. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 1 (1): 39-44. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol (abstract) - Pubmed citation
- 2. Miller ES, Dias PS, Uttley D. Management of subdural empyema: a series of 24 cases. J. Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatr. 1987;50 (11): 1415-8. doi:10.1136/jnnp.50.11.1415 - Free text at pubmed - Pubmed citation
- 3. Scheld WM, Whitley RJ, Marra CM. Infections of the central nervous system. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. (2004) ISBN:0781743273. Read it at Google Books - Find it at Amazon
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- herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2) encephalitis
- varicella zoster virus (VZV) encephalitis
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