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Identifying Spinal Fluid Leak Symptoms Following Microdiscectomy Surgery


7.19 - What Are the Symptoms of Spinal Fluid Leak After Microdiscectomy

Microdiscectomy is a minimally invasive form of traditional discectomy surgery that involves removing part of a herniated disc that is pressing on a spinal nerve. It is often done to treat sciatica, a condition that causes pain, numbness, and weakness in the lower back and legs.

Microdiscectomy is generally a safe and effective procedure, but as with any surgery, it has some risks and complications. One of the rare but possible complications is a spinal fluid leak, also known as a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak. This article explores the symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of a spinal fluid leak following microdiscectomy surgery.

What Is a Spinal Fluid Leak?

A spinal fluid leak occurs when there is a tear or hole in the dura, the tough membrane that covers the spinal cord and the nerve roots. The dura contains CSF, a clear fluid that cushions and protects the brain and the spinal cord. When the dura is damaged, CSF can leak out of the spinal canal and into the surrounding tissues. A spinal fluid leak can occur during microdiscectomy surgery if the surgeon accidentally cuts or punctures the dura while removing the disc fragment. 

What Are the Symptoms of a Spinal Fluid Leak?

The symptoms of a spinal fluid leak may vary depending on the location and size of the tear, the amount of CSF that leaks out, and the presence of infection or nerve damage. Some of the common symptoms are:

  • Clear fluid drainage – A telltale sign of a spinal fluid leak is the presence of clear fluid draining from the surgical incision site. This fluid may appear watery or thin, similar to the consistency of nasal discharge. If you notice any unusual fluid discharge from the incision, it is crucial to seek medical attention promptly.
  • Headache – This is usually the most prominent symptom of a spinal fluid leak. The headache typically starts or worsens when sitting or standing up and improves when lying down. This is because standing up increases the pressure in the lower spine, allowing more CSF to leak out and reducing the pressure in the brain. The headache may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, dizziness, or sensitivity to light or sound.
  • Ringing in the ears and changes in hearing – Unusual symptoms like ringing in the ears (tinnitus) or changes in hearing may also be indicative of a spinal fluid leak. The pressure changes caused by the leak can affect the inner ear and lead to auditory disturbances. If you notice any new or worsening hearing-related symptoms after microdiscectomy surgery, it is essential to seek medical attention.
  • Back pain – This may occur at the site of the surgery or along the spine. The pain may be sharp, dull, throbbing, or burning. It may be caused by inflammation, infection, or nerve irritation due to the CSF leak.
  • Neurological symptoms – These may include numbness, tingling, weakness, or shooting pain in the arms or legs. Symptoms may occur if a nerve root is compressed or damaged by the CSF leak or by a disc fragment that herniates through the tear.
  • Infection – This may occur if bacteria enter the spinal canal through the tear, which can cause meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and the spinal cord. Meningitis can be a life-threatening complication that requires immediate medical attention. The symptoms of meningitis may include fever, chills, stiff neck, confusion, seizures, or even coma.

How Is a Spinal Fluid Leak Diagnosed and Treated?

A spinal fluid leak can be diagnosed by physical examination, imaging tests (such as MRI or CT scan), or CSF analysis (such as lumbar puncture). The treatment depends on the severity and duration of the leak as well as the presence of infection or nerve damage.

Some spinal fluid leaks may heal on their own with conservative measures, such as bed rest, hydration, pain medication, and anti-inflammatory drugs. These measures aim to reduce CSF production and increase CSF absorption, allowing the tear to seal.

However, some spinal fluid leaks may require surgical intervention to repair the tear and prevent further complications. The surgical options may include:

  • Primary repair – This involves closing the tear with sutures or glue during microdiscectomy surgery or shortly after it.
  • Blood patch – This involves injecting autologous blood (the patient's own blood) into the epidural space near the tear to form a clot that seals it.
  • Fibrin glue patch – This involves injecting fibrin glue (a substance derived from blood plasma) into the epidural space near the tear to form a sealant that stops CSF leakage.
  • Dural graft – This involves placing a patch made of synthetic material or tissue from another part of the body over the tear to reinforce it.

The choice of surgical technique depends on several factors, such as the size and location of the tear, the surgeon's preference and experience, and the availability of resources.

How Can a Spinal Fluid Leak Be Prevented?

The best way to prevent a spinal fluid leak is to avoid or minimize the risk factors that may cause it. Some of the risk factors are:

  • Type of disease – Some spinal conditions, such as lumbar spinal stenosis, lumbar spondylolisthesis, and lumbar degenerative scoliosis, may increase the risk of spinal fluid leak due to the complexity of the surgery or the presence of scar tissue or adhesions.
  • Preoperative epidural steroid injection – This may weaken the dura and make it more prone to tearing during surgery.
  • Number of surgical levels – This may increase the exposure and manipulation of the dura and the nerve roots during surgery.
  • Revision surgery – This may increase the risk of spinal fluid leak due to the presence of scar tissue, adhesions, or previous dural damage.

Therefore, it is important to consult with a qualified and experienced spine surgeon who can perform microdiscectomy surgery safely and effectively and to follow the preoperative and postoperative instructions carefully.

Recognizing the symptoms of a spinal fluid leak after microdiscectomy surgery is crucial for early intervention and appropriate treatment. If you experience any of the symptoms listed above, contact your doctor or spine surgeon immediately for further instructions.

Even though microdiscectomy surgery is a common and generally quite successful procedure, a hole is frequently left in the outer wall of the disc. In fact, patients with these large holes in their discs are more than twice as likely to reinjure themselves by having what is known as reherniations. These reherniations often require additional surgery or even fusions. Fortunately, there is a new treatment specifically designed to close the large holes that are often left in spinal discs after discectomy surgery. Barricaid is a bone-anchored device proven to reduce reherniations, and 95 percent of Barricaid patients did not undergo a reoperation due to reherniation in a 2-year study time frame. This treatment is done immediately following the discectomy—during the same operation—and does not require any additional incisions or time in the hospital. 

If you have any questions about the Barricaid treatment, ask your doctor or contact us at 844-288-7474.


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