Secondary Logo

Journal Logo

Delayed Onset Cranial Nerve Palsies After Endovascular Coil Embolization of Direct Carotid-Cavernous Fistulas

Bou Ghannam, Alaa, MD; Subramanian, Prem, S., MD, PhD

Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology: June 2018 - Volume 38 - Issue 2 - p 156–159
doi: 10.1097/WNO.0000000000000568
Original Contribution

Background: Late recurrence of visual symptoms associated with carotid-cavernous fistula (CCF), including diplopia, is uncommon and raises concern for new or recurrent fistula formation.

Methods: We report 2 patients with traumatic CCFs, where cranial nerve paresis resolved after endovascular CCF treatment only to reappear years later.

Results: No evidence of recurrent or new fistula formation was found. Both were treated successfully with strabismus surgery.

Conclusions: Although the cause of delayed onset diplopia after successful treatment is still unknown, theories include late compression of cranial nerves within the cavernous sinus due to coil mass that can cause chronic ischemia, delayed inflammation due to a thrombophilic nidus created by the coil mass, or injury to the cranial nerves that manifests later due to decompensated strabismus.

Departments of Ophthalmology, Neurology, and Neurosurgery (ABG, PSS), University of Colorado School of Medicine, Aurora, Colorado.

Address correspondence to Prem S. Subramanian, MD, PhD, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Anschutz Medical Campus, 1675 Aurora Court, Mailstop F-731 Aurora, CO 80045; E-mail:

Supported in part by a challenge grant to the Department of Ophthalmology from Research to Prevent Blindness, USA.

The authors report no conflicts of interest.

Direct carotid-cavernous fistulas (CCFs) may occur after acceleration/deceleration head trauma and result in a high-flow connection between the cavernous segment of the internal carotid artery and the adjacent cavernous sinus. Symptoms may occur immediately or days later. Patients with direct CCF are typically young (younger than 50 years) and male, and they do not have vasculopathic risk factors that are often present in patients with indirect, low-flow dural arteriovenous fistulas (AVFs) (1). Clinical signs of direct CCF include proptosis, lid swelling, diplopia, conjunctival injection and chemosis, orbital bruit, increased intraocular pressure, and possible vision loss (2,3). Diplopia may result from the mechanical effects of extraocular muscle venous congestion, compression of the ocular motor cranial nerves by the arterialized venous channels, or a combination of both.

Treatment of direct CCF is endovascular embolization with platinum coils, detachable balloons, glue, or other substances and carries a high success rate, has a durable effect and a very low rate of recurrence (4).

Late recurrence of CCF-associated visual symptoms, including diplopia, is uncommon and raises concern for new or recurrent fistula formation. We describe 2 patients with traumatic CCF in whom ocular motility abnormalities with diplopia occurred years after endovascular CCF treatment.

Back to Top | Article Outline


A 31-year-old previously healthy man was involved in an accident while riding his motorcycle without a helmet. Approximately 1 week after the accident, the patient awoke with decreased vision in his right eye and diplopia that gradually worsened. At the time of referral to our neuro-ophthalmology service 2 months after the accident, visual acuity was 20/20 bilaterally, with 7.5-mm right eye proptosis with mild resistance to retropulsion and a right orbital bruit. There were arterialized and dilated right conjunctival vessels and a right sixth nerve palsy. The right optic nerve was mildly hyperemic. The left eye was normal.

Cerebral angiography confirmed the presence of a right CCF (Fig. 1A), and transarterial embolization with platinum coil obliteration of the fistula at the medial and posterior right cavernous sinus was performed the next day (Fig. 1B). Over the next several weeks, right proptosis and diplopia resolved.

FIG. 1

FIG. 1

Five years later, the patient returned with a 2–3 month history of recurrent diplopia. He was found to have a right eye abduction deficit and a mild limitation of elevation that worsened with attempted abduction. Motility in the left eye was normal. Afferent visual function and intraocular pressures were normal, and exophthalmometry showed 2 mm of right proptosis.

MRI of brain and orbits, computed tomography angiogram, and digital subtraction angiography all revealed no recurrence of the fistula and no intracranial pathology. The original coil pack was judged to be stable (Fig. 1C). No signs or symptoms of alternative causes of strabismus such as thyroid eye disease or myasthenia gravis were noted. Over the course of 8 months, the patient underwent 2 strabismus operations with resolution of his diplopia. He remained asymptomatic at 3-month follow-up.

Back to Top | Article Outline


A 20-year-old man in good health was thrown from a work vehicle and suffered closed head trauma. Several weeks later, he developed left eye swelling, redness, and proptosis and was found to have a left CCF (Fig. 2A). This was treated successfully with an ultrasound-guided transcutaneous puncture of the left super ophthalmic vein and placement of 16 platinum coils (Fig. 2B). He reported no diplopia either before or immediately after the procedure.

FIG. 2

FIG. 2

Four years later, the patient developed diplopia. Examination showed reduced motility of the left eye, consistent with left sixth nerve palsy and partial left third nerve palsy, with intact visual acuity and normal intraocular pressure (15 mm Hg in both eyes). There was 2 mm of left proptosis without periocular swelling or conjunctival injection. Postcontrast brain MRI and digital subtraction angiography revealed no recurrence of the left CCF with a stable coil pack (Fig. 2C) and no intracranial abnormalities.

Examination at our institution several months later showed limited left eye movements in all directions with 3 mm of left ptosis, and motility of the right eye was full. There were no signs suggestive of an underlying cause of his diplopia such as thyroid eye disease or myasthenia gravis. When his symptoms and clinical examination were unchanged 3 months later, eye muscle surgery was performed. Postoperatively, the patient had single binocular vision in primary position and experienced diplopia only with extremes of gaze. His eye position remained unchanged over the ensuing 6 months.

Back to Top | Article Outline


Approximately 20% of CCF patients have signs of isolated third nerve palsy, and an additional 32% have both third nerve involvement and findings consistent with dysfunction fourth and/or sixth nerves. Isolated sixth nerve involvement occurs in approximately 10% of patients, and isolated fourth nerve palsy is extremely rare (5–7).

Two possible neuropathic causes of diplopia with CCF have been proposed. The most widely accepted theory implicates venous congestion (8). Increased venous pressure may cause compression of cranial nerves; the third nerve can be compressed against the roof of the cavernous sinus (9), the fourth nerve can be compressed against the tentorial edge (10), and the sixth nerve can be compressed against the petroclinoid ligament (6). Other theories suggest that ophthalmoplegia is the result of cranial nerve paresis caused by thrombosis or a steal phenomenon. In reality, a combination of the processes likely exists in most cases (5,8).

Based on our review of the literature, we believe that our patients represent the first 2 cases of delayed mixed third and sixth nerve palsies appearing 5 years after complete resolution of direct CCF. Late onset of strabismus from isolated sixth nerve palsy has been reported after embolization of indirect (low flow) CCF. However, patients with indirect CCF often have other vasculopathic risk factors such as hypertension and/or hyperlipidemia, and multiple cranial nerve paresis has not been described (11). The cause of the multiple cranial nerve palsies in the otherwise healthy patients reported here may be multifactorial. Coil mass compression of the cranial nerves may result in immediate posttreatment symptoms, but coil compaction with time tends to reduce this untoward effect. Furthermore, the third and sixth nerves are believed to be vulnerable to injury in distinct and anatomically separate areas of the cavernous sinus (12,13) and the lack of apparent damage to other cranial nerves (fourth, ophthalmic, or maxillary) traveling in the same anatomic spaces does make chronic coil compression a less plausible explanation.

Another possibility is that the coils form a thrombophilic nidus for clot formation that does not resolve with fistula closure (11,12,14); it has been shown that the levels of d-dimer are higher in patients with AVF, and that the level will remain high even after treatment (15). Finally, it must be considered that the patients may have had permanent cranial nerve injury from the CCF, and that the diplopia occurred years later from decompensated strabismus. However, early diplopia resolution in Case 1 and lack of initial diplopia in Case 2 makes this possibility unlikely.

In conclusion, patients may be at long-term risk of diplopia after coil embolization of direct CCF. Delayed onset cranial nerve palsies are extremely rare in patients with completely treated fistulas. Our small case series does not permit us to identify specific risk factors for this late occurrence. We suggest 3 mechanisms that can partially explain the symptoms; however, we cannot determine with certainty which process(es) was/were present in our cases. Patients should be made aware of the potential for late-onset double vision even after successful treatment of direct CCF treatment.


Category 1: a. Conception and design: Subramanian; b. Acquisition of data: Bou Ghannam and Subramanian; c. Analysis and interpretation of data: Bou Ghannam and Subramanian. Category 2: a. Drafting the manuscript: Bou Ghannam and Subramanian; b. Revising it for intellectual content: Subramanian. Category 3: a. Final approval of the completed manuscript: Bou Ghannam and Subramanian.

Back to Top | Article Outline


1. Subramanian PS, Williams ZR. Arteriovenous malformations and carotid-cavernous fistulae. Int Ophthalmol Clin. 2009;49:81–102.
2. de Keizer R. Carotid-cavernous and orbital arteriovenous fistulas: ocular features, diagnostic and hemodynamic considerations in relation to visual impairment and morbidity. Orbit. 2003;22:121–142.
3. Miller NR. Diagnosis and management of dural carotid-cavernous sinus fistulas. Neurosurg Focus. 2007;23:E13.
4. Yoshida K, Melake M, Oishi H, Yamamoto M, Arai H. Transvenous embolization of dural carotid cavernous fistulas: a series of 44 consecutive patients. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2010;31:651–655.
5. Grumann AJ, Boivin-Faure L, Chapot R, Adenis JP, Robert PY. Ophthalmologic outcome of direct and indirect carotid cavernous fistulas. Int Ophthalmol. 2012;32:153–159.
6. Wu HC, Ro LS, Chen CJ, Chen ST, Lee TH, Chen YC, Chen CM. Isolated ocular motor nerve palsy in dural carotid-cavernous sinus fistula. Eur J Neurol. 2006;13:1221–1225.
7. Kurata A, Takano M, Tokiwa K, Miyasaka Y, Yada K, Kan S. Spontaneous carotid cavernous fistula presenting only with cranial nerve palsies. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 1993;14:1097–1101.
8. Miller NR. Dural carotid-cavernous fistulas: epidemiology, clinical presentation, and management. Neurosurg Clin N Am. 2012;23:179–192.
9. Miyachi S, Negoro M, Handa T, Sugita K. Dural carotid cavernous sinus fistula presenting as isolated oculomotor nerve palsy. Surg Neurol. 1993;39:105–109.
10. Selky AK, Purvin VA. Isolated trochlear nerve palsy secondary to dural carotid-cavernous sinus fistula. J Neuroophthalmol. 1994;14:52–54.
11. Kashiwazaki D, Kuwayama N, Akioka N, Kuroda S. Delayed abducens nerve palsy after transvenous coil embolization for cavernous sinus dural arteriovenous fistulae. Acta Neurochir (Wien). 2014;156:97–101.
12. Nishino K, Ito Y, Hasegawa H, et al. Cranial nerve palsy following transvenous embolization for a cavernous sinus dural arteriovenous fistula: association with the volume and location of detachable coils. J Neurosurg. 2008;109:208–214.
13. Rhoton AL. The cavernous sinus, the cavernous venous plexus, and the carotid collar. Neurosurgery. 2002;51:S375–S410.
14. Roy D, Raymond J. The role of transvenous embolization in the treatment of intracranial dural arteriovenous fistulas. Neurosurgery. 1997;40:1133–1141; discussion 1141–1144.
15. Izumi T, Miyachi S, Hattori KI, Iizuka H, Nakane Y, Yoshida J. Thrombophilic abnormalities among patients with cranial dural arteriovenous fistulas. Neurosurgery. 2007;61:262–268; discussion 268–269.
Back to Top | Article Outline

Images in Neuro-Ophthalmology

Optic disc drusen associated with juxtapapillary choroidal neovascularization.

Optic disc drusen associated with juxtapapillary choroidal neovascularization.

© 2018 by North American Neuro-Ophthalmology Society