My patient with acute onset headache, photophobia, and neck stiffness does not have CSF pleocytosis. Could she still have meningitis?

Although the clinical diagnosis of meningitis is often supported by the presence of abnormal number of WBCs in the CSF (AKA pleocytosis), meningitis may be present despite its absence.

Among viral causes of meningitis in adults, enteroviruses are associated with lower CSF WBC count compared to herpes simplex and varicella zoster, with some patients (~10%) having 0-2 WBC’s/mm31,2.  Of interest, among children, parechovirus (formerly echovirus 22 and 23) meningitis is characterized by normal CSF findings3.

Though uncommon, bacterial meningitis without CSF pleocytosis has been reported among non-neutropenic adults,  including Neisseria meningitidis, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Hemophilus influenzae, Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli, and Proteus mirabilis4A European study also reported normal CSF WBC in nearly 10% of patients with Lyme neuroborreliosis (including meningitis) caused primarily by Borrelia garinii5.

Cryptococcal meninigitis may also be associated with normal CSF profile in 25% of patients with HIV infection6.

 

References

  1. Ihekwaba UK, Kudesia G, McKendrick MW. Clinical features of viral meningitis in adult:significant differences in cerebrospinal fluid findings among herpes simplex virus, varicella zoster virus, and enterovirus infections. Clin Infect Dis 2008;47:783-9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18680414
  2. Dawood N, Desjobert E, Lumley J et al. Confirmed viral meningitis with normal CSF findings. BMJ Case Rep 2014. Doi:10.1136/bcr-2014-203733. http://casereports.bmj.com/content/2014/bcr-2014-203733.abstract
  3. Wolthers KC, Benschop KSM, Schinkel J, et al. Human parechovirus as an important viral cause of sepsis like illness and meningitis in young children. Clin Infect Dis 2008;47:358-63. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18558876
  4. Hase R, Hosokawa N, Yaegashi M, et al. Bacterial meningitis in the absence of cerebrospinal fluid pleocytosis: A case report and review of the literature. Can J Infect Dis Med Microbiol 2014;25:249:51. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4211346/pdf/idmm-25-249.pdf
  5. Ogrinc K, Lotric-Furlan S, Maraspin  V, et al. Suspected early Lyme neuroborreliosis in patients with erythema migrans. Clin Infect Dis 2013; 57:501-9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=23667259
  6. Darras-Joly C, Chevret S, Wolff M, et al. Cryptococcus neoformans infection in France: epidemiologic features of and early prognostic parameters for 76 patients who were infected with human immunodeficiency virus. Clin Infect Dis 1996;23:369-76. https://oup.silverchair-cdn.com/oup/backfile/Content_public/Journal/cid/23/2/10.1093/clinids/23.2.369/2/23-2-369.pdf?Expires=1501035620&Signature=FhHMHUHAMmT3rz4ld8QAMet-weu-BWgm5YR6nA4jjSGVGIeaVlMNPgeOkW2fniiel54HQhIs1Kkp3PpzT1glxhJeZvQiGXQCSOoF-jS1SK7S~kBb-oHs4qsIJzN0OJxNAXfoJi4bl7OeKaLTyIE3P8~slwH0BBi7RncSYVgVR4NkOnFpYgn27~wY7pDSUNWvzGFKoSeYGeM0TsAqna-QmXzodITB5bgr1mO6Q6OGUxCsqRwhr6xNb~4G93oqRcsO19gyUluCE0xYt0KbKWuQxJeh8AbtJkNrS08~XInMR50bQZOUb80j0~dtg9jRTGzXQaDllVByoX2Alr48hlhogw__&Key-Pair-Id=APKAIUCZBIA4LVPAVW3Q
My patient with acute onset headache, photophobia, and neck stiffness does not have CSF pleocytosis. Could she still have meningitis?

What is the clinical utility of neck stiffness, Kernig’s sign and Brudzinski’s sign in the evaluation of patients suspected of having meningitis?

The sensitivity of these signs for meningitis is poor: neck stiffness 30% and Kernig’s and Brudzinski’s signs 5% each (1).  Therefore, their absence does not exclude the possibility of meningitis. Although their specificities may be comparatively better (neck stiffness 68%, and Kernig’s and Brudzinski’s signs 95% each), the positive and negative predictive values of these signs generally leave a lot to be desired and their likelihood ratios (both positive and negative) are poor (near 1.0) (1).  

The poor sensitivities of Kernig’s and Brudzinski’s signs may be related to the fact that the original research papers published over 100 years ago involved primarily children with severe bacterial or tuberculous meningitis, a population that is quite different than today’s elderly or immunocompromised patients (2) who may present earlier during their course of disease. Thus, the decision to perform a lumbar puncture should be based primarily on factors other than these signs.

 References

  1. Thomas KE, Hasbun R, Jekel J, et al. The diagnostic accuracy of Kernig’s sign, Brudzinski’s sign, and nuchal rigidity in adults with suspected meningitis. Clin Infec Dis 2002;35:46-52.
  2. Mehndiratta M, Nayak R, Garg H, et al. Appraisal of Kernig’s and Brudzinski’s sign in meningitis. Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2012 Oct-Dec; 15(4): 287–288.
What is the clinical utility of neck stiffness, Kernig’s sign and Brudzinski’s sign in the evaluation of patients suspected of having meningitis?