Tension pneumocephalus

Tension pneumocephalus is a neurosurgical emergency that occurs when subdural air causes a mass-effect over the underlying brain parenchyma, often from a ball-valve mechanism causing one-way entry of air into the subdural space 1.

Tension pneumocephalus has a varied clinical presentation, with reported features including 2:

  • severe restlessness
  • deteriorating consciousness
  • focal neurological deficits
  • cardiac arrest.

There are numerous aetiologies, including 1-3:

  • trauma with leakage of cerebrospinal fluid
  • recent neurosurgery (e.g. the complication risk is reported to be 2.5% after chronic subdural haematoma evacuation)
  • tumours of the paranasal sinuses
  • infections
  • use of nitrous oxide as an anaesthetic agent (NO dissolves into blood and enters the subdural space, expanding the pre-existing gaseous volume)

Irrespective of the mechanism, the increased pressure leads to extra-axial mass effect and compression of the frontal lobes 1,2. The presence of air between the frontal tips suggests that the pressure of the air is at least greater than that of the surface tension of cerebrospinal fluid between the frontal lobes 4.

On CT, initially the “peaking" sign is present, whereby subdural air compresses the frontal lobes, before the frontal lobes then separate in a characteristic appearance, aptly termed the Mount Fuji sign 3-5.

Tension pneumocephalus is a neurosurgical emergency 2.  Treatment is with surgical decompression 2.

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Article information

rID: 12517
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Pneumochephalus with tension

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Cases and figures

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    Case 1: possible tension pneumocephalus
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    Case 2
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    Extended tension ...
    Case 3
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    Case 4
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    Case 5
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    Case 6
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    Air occupies the ...
    Case 7
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