Idiopathic intracranial hypertension

Idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH), also known as pseudotumour cerebri, is a syndrome with signs and symptoms of increased intracranial pressure but where a causative mass or hydrocephalus is not identified.

The older term benign intracranial hypertension is generally frowned upon due to the fact that some patients with IIH have a fairly aggressive clinical picture with rapid visual loss. 

Interestingly as it has become evident that at least some patients present with IIH due to identifiable venous stenosis, some authors now advocate reverting to the older term pseudotumour cerebri as in these patients the condition is not idiopathic 15. An alternative approach is to move these patients into a group termed secondary intracranial hypertension 15

By far the most common affected demographic is middle-aged obese females, although the aetiological link between being female, overweight and developing IIH remains to be elucidated. Less commonly IIH can also be encountered in males, usually older, and less likely to be obese 15.  IIH is rare in the paediatric population 15

The presentation is usually with headaches, visual problems (transient or gradual visual loss), pulse-synchronous tinnitus, photopsia and eye pain 15

Papilloedema may not always be present or may be unilateral (including pseudo-Foster Kennedy syndrome), making the clinical diagnosis less than straightforward 6. Neurological examination is usually normal, with a sixth cranial nerve palsy sometimes encountered.

Additional clinical findings include normal CSF composition with elevated opening pressure. It should be noted that opening pressure varies significantly. One study continuously measuring CSF pressures demonstrated a mean pressure of less than 35mmHg (48cm H2O) but with intermittent pressure waves as with amplitudes of 50–80mmHg(68–109cm H2O) which lasted 5 to 20 minutes) 6.

Meningoceles with secondary CSF leak can present as rhinorrhea, otorrhea, intracranial hypotension, and recurrent bacterial meningitis 7,9. In such patients it is often only after dural repair that intracranial hypertension becomes evident; presumably, the CSF leak from the meningocele normalized pressure 9

IIH is a poorly understood condition. Various mechanisms have been proposed to explain its pathogenesis, including decreased CSF absorption, increased CSF production, increased intravascular volume, increased intracranial venous pressure and hormonal changes 1,15.  

A variety of conditions are known to be associated with IIH including:

Imaging of the brain with CT and MRI is essential in patients IIH, to exclude elevated CSF pressure due to other causes such as brain tumour, dural sinus thrombosis, hydrocephalus, etc. 

In the absence of a cause for intracranial hypertension, imaging features that support the diagnosis of IIH include 3,6-9,15:

  • optic nerves
    • prominent subarachnoid space around the optic nerves (~45%)
    • vertical tortuosity of the optic nerves (~40%)
    • papilloedema
      • flattening of the posterior sclera (~80%)
      • intraocular protrusion of the optic nerve head
    • enhancement of the prelaminar (intra-ocular) optic nerves (~50%)
  • enlarged arachnoid outpouchings
    • partial empty sella turcica (~70%) *
    • enlarged Meckel cave 9,18
    • prominent arachnoid pits / small meningoceles typically within the temporal bone and sphenoid wing 9
    • enlarged CSF space around the oculomotor nerve in the lateral wall of the cavernous sinus 18
  • bilateral venous sinus stenosis
    • lateral segments of the transverse sinuses
    • no evidence of current or remote thrombosis 8
  • slitlike ventricles (relatively uncommon compared to other findings) 15
  • acquired tonsillar ectopia (mimicking Chiari I malformation) 16
  • increased subcutaneous fat thickness in the scalp and neck 17

Although bony changes are permanent, the rest are dynamic and may be reversible with treatment 3.

* It is important to take into account the age and gender of a specific patient in assessing the significance of this finding, as in older patients, and especially in males, a partially empty non-enlarged sella is not only common but normal. 

Treatment options include CSF letting, acetazolamide and lumboperitoneal shunts. In patients with progressive visual deterioration, optic nerve fenestration may be required to preserve vision.

Venous sinus stenting has been reported in case series 4,10 and also being trialled 13,14.  The treatment is controversial as to whether apparent venous sinus stenosis is the cause or the effect of IIH 11,12. Spontaneous resolution of apparent stenosis is recognised 6

Idiopathic intracranial hypertension was first reported in 1893 by Heinrich Quincke, and terms "meningitis serosa". The term "pseudotumour cerebri" was later introduced in 1904, and later still "benign intracranial hypertension" in 1955 (not to be confused with benign intracranial hypotension) 15

Other causes of intracranial hypertension and papilloedema should be sought. Causes of venous obstruction (e.g. venous sinus thrombosis and venous outflow obstruction in the neck) can very closely mimic the intracranial findings. 

Additionally, in patients with prominent cerebellar tonsillar ectopia the possibility that all findings are in fact due to a Chiari I malformation should be considered, particularly as there is substantial overlap in the demographics and clinical presentation of the two patient groups 16,19. It has even been suggested that some cases of symptomatic intracranial hypertension are secondary to a Chiari 1 malformation 20. Importantly, however, every attempt should be made to distinguish between the two entities as treatment is different and posterior fossa decompression of patients with idiopathic intracranial hypotension can be poor 21

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Article information

rID: 8648
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Pseudotumour cerebri
  • Pseudotumor cerebri
  • Benign intracranial hypertension
  • Idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH)
  • Benign intracranial hypertension (BIH)
  • Meningitis serosa

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    Case 15: with bilateral enlarged Meckel's caves
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