Headache: A Merck Manual of Patient Symptoms podcast
Low-pressure headaches result from reduction in CSF volume and pressure due to lumbar puncture or spontaneous or traumatic CSF leaks.
Removal of CSF by lumbar puncture (LP) reduces CSF volume and pressure, as do spontaneous or traumatic CSF leaks.
Headache after LP is common, usually occurring hours to a day or two afterward, and can be severe. Younger patients with a small body mass are at greatest risk. Using small, noncutting needles reduces risk. The amount of CSF removed and duration of recumbency after LP do not affect incidence.
Spontaneous CSF leaks may result when an arachnoid cyst along the spinal canal ruptures. Coughing or sneezing may cause the rupture. CSF may leak after certain head or facial injuries (eg, basilar skull fractures).
Headache results when head elevation while sitting or standing stretches the pain-sensitive basal meninges. Headaches are intense, postural, and often accompanied by neck pain, meningismus, and vomiting. Headache is alleviated only by lying completely flat.
Post-LP headache is clinically obvious, and testing is rarely needed; other low-pressure headaches may require brain imaging. MRI with gadolinium often shows diffuse enhancement of the pachymeninges and, in severe cases, downward sagging of the brain. CSF pressure is typically low or unobtainable if patients have been upright for any length of time.
The first line of treatment is recumbency, hydration, an elastic abdominal binder, caffeine, and analgesics as needed. If post-LP headache persists after a day of such treatment, an epidural blood patch (injection of a few mL of the patient's clotted venous blood into the lumbar epidural space) is usually effective. A blood patch may also be effective for spontaneous or traumatic CSF leaks, which rarely require surgical closure.
Last full review/revision November 2012 by Stephen D. Silberstein, MD