When should I suspect spinal epidural abscess in my 55 year old patient with severe back pain?

 It cannot be overemphasized that up 50% of patients with spinal epidural abscess (SEA) have no known risk factors,  one-half may have no fever,  and 20-40% lack leukocytosis1. In fact, the “classic triad” of back pain, fever, and neurological deficits is found only in the minority of patients!  No wonder that up to 75% of patients SEA are misdiagnosed on their initial healthcare encounter1!

Potential “red flags” for infectious causes of low back pain include age >50 y, night pain, unremitting pain even when supine, duration > 6 weeks, fever, chills, night sweats, weight loss, conditions associated with Staphylococcus aureus bacteremia (eg intravenous drug use), incontinence, saddle anesthesia, and severe or rapidly progressive neurologic deficits1,2.  

ESR and C-reactive protein (CRP) are almost uniformly elevated in SEA1 and can serve as a good starting point in excluding this condition when in doubt.   In patients ≥50 y of age with low back pain, obtaining ESR routinely has been suggested for detection of systemic disease (eg cancer, infection)3.  Similarly, in a recent algorithm of severe back pain, routine measurements of ESR and CRP, even in the absence of any neurological findings, has been recommended1; elevation of either may necessitate consideration of MRI.

References:

  1. Bond, A, Manian FA. Spinal epidural abscess: a review with special emphasis on earlier diagnosis. BioMed Res International 2016; https://www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2016/1614328/http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2016/1614328  
  2. Della-Giustina. Acute low back pain: recognizing the “red flags” in the workup. Consultant 2013;53:436-440. http://www.consultant360.com/article/acute-low-back-pain-recognizing-%E2%80%9Cred-flags%E2%80%9D-workup
  3. Jarvik JG, Deyo RA. Diagnostic evaluation of low back pain with emphasis on imaging. Ann Intern Med 2002;137:586-597. http://annals.org/aim/article/715687/diagnostic-evaluation-low-back-pain-emphasis-imaging

 

Disclosure: The author of this post (FAM) also coauthored reference 1.

When should I suspect spinal epidural abscess in my 55 year old patient with severe back pain?

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