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Spinal epidural abscess: clinical presentation, management, and outcome.

BACKGROUND: We sought to describe the clinical characteristics of patients with spinal epidural abscess and to relate presentation and treatment to short-term clinical and neurologic outcome.

METHODS: We retrospectively reviewed the records and radiographic images of all patients admitted to our institution with a diagnosis of spinal epidural abscess between January 1995 and March 2001.

RESULTS: Thirty males and 18 females were admitted with spinal epidural abscess. Median age was 61 years (range, 31-84). Twenty-three of 48 patients were febrile at presentation and the mean white blood cell (WBC) count was 15.5 (range, 4.0-38.7). Twenty-seven patients presented with motor deficits, 17 with pain alone, 2 with sepsis, 1 with dysphagia, and 1 incidentally on spinal imaging. Intravenous drug abuse was the most common risk factor (13 patients) followed by the presence of nonspinal infection, including endocarditis (10 patients). Blood cultures were positive in 29 patients. Staphylococcus aureus was the most common organism cultured from abscesses. Collections were located in the cervical spine in 11 patients, cervicothoracic in 4, thoracic in 7, thoracolumbar in 4, and lumbosacral in 22. One patient harbored both cervical and lumbar epidural abscesses. Twenty-three patients initially received nonoperative therapy with antibiotics alone; 25 underwent urgent surgery. Eleven patients initially treated with antibiotics eventually deteriorated and required delayed surgery. Patients receiving antibiotics suffered a significantly greater number of unfavorable outcomes (clinical deterioration or death) than those in the early surgical group (P < 0.005).

CONCLUSIONS: Patients with spinal epidural abscess may be normothermic and have normal WBC counts. Urgent surgery was more likely to be offered to patients presenting with neurologic deficits than with pain alone. Patients treated without early surgery were significantly more likely to deteriorate and suffer poor outcomes.

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