Brain abscesses and spinal epidural abscesses are serious, potentially life-threatening infections of the central nervous system. This article outlines the clinical presentation, evaluation, and management of brain abscesses and spinal epidural abscesses, with a specific focus on bacterial infections.
The overall incidence of brain abscesses has declined, in part because of fewer brain abscesses associated with otogenic infections. However, emerging patient populations at high risk for brain abscess include those with a history of penetrating head trauma, neurosurgery, or immunodeficiency. Improved mortality rates for brain abscess are attributable to modern diagnostic imaging, stereotactic-guided aspiration, and newer antimicrobials that readily penetrate into the central nervous system and abscesses. Brain MRI is more sensitive than CT for brain abscess, particularly in the early stages, but CT remains more widely available and can adequately identify potential abscesses and confirm response to treatment. With the advent of minimally invasive neurosurgical techniques, surgical excision is often employed only for posterior fossa, multiloculated, or superficial well-circumscribed abscesses. In select clinical scenarios, conservative medical management may be a safe alternative to a combined surgical and medical approach. Unlike brain abscess, the incidence of spinal epidural abscess is on the rise and has been attributed to higher prevalence of predisposing factors, including spinal procedures and instrumentation.
Successful diagnosis and management of brain abscess and spinal epidural abscess requires a collaborative approach among neurologists, neurosurgeons, radiologists, and infectious disease physicians. The foundation of management of brain abscess includes surgical intervention for diagnostic purposes if a pathogen has not been identified or for decompression of larger abscesses or those with mass effect and significant surrounding edema; appropriate dosing and adequate duration of an antimicrobial regimen tailored to the presumptive source of infection and available culture data, and eradication of the primary source of infection. For spinal epidural abscesses, neurologic status at the time of presentation is directly related to outcomes, underscoring the importance of prompt recognition and intervention.