Home Health A-Z CSF Leak (Cerebrospinal Fluid Leak): Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

CSF Leak (Cerebrospinal Fluid Leak): Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Verified By Apollo Doctors April 7, 2023 2757 0
CSF Leak (Cerebrospinal Fluid Leak): Causes, Symptoms and Treatment
CSF Leak (Cerebrospinal Fluid Leak): Causes, Symptoms and Treatment


Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is a liquid surrounding your brain and spinal cord, serving as a protective cushion. It is held in place by three layers of membranes, with a CSF leak occurring when there is an opening in the outermost layer (dura mater), allowing some of the fluid to escape.

What is a Cerebrospinal Fluid Leak?

CSF leaks fall into two categories, each with unique signs, causes, and remedies: cranial and spinal CSF leaks. A spinal CSF leak can occur anywhere along the spinal column. In contrast, a cranial CSF leak occurs in the skull.

A headache is the primary symptom of a spinal CSF leak, but a cranial CSF leak results in symptoms like clear liquid oozing from the nose or ear. With conservative therapies such as bed rest, certain CSF leaks may improve. Many CSF leaks require surgery to stop the leak or a patch to seal the hole.

What are the Causes of CSF Leaks?

In some instances, a leak has no recognized cause. Doctors refer to this as a spontaneous CSF leak. Nonetheless, there are reasons why the fluid could leak. They are:

Spinal CSF leaks may be caused by:

  1. A lumbar puncture (spinal tap)
  2. An injury to the head/spine
  3. Prior surgery on the spine
  4. Bone spurs along the spine
  5. An epidural in the spine for pain relief, like during labor and delivery
  6. CSF-venous fistulas (Abnormal connections between dura mater and veins)
  7. Spinal nerve root abnormalities caused by abnormal dura mater

Cranial CSF leaks may be caused by:

  1. An injury to the head
  2. An increase in brain pressure
  3. Shunts that do not function properly
  4. Inner ear malformations

There are times when CSF leaks occur as a result of very minor events:

  • Exercise
  • Sneezing
  • Straining to have a bowel movement
  • Stretching
  • Lifting heavy objects
  • Coughing
  • Falling

What are the Signs and Symptoms of a CSF Leak?

As mentioned earlier, the symptoms of spinal and cranial CSF leaks differ. 

If you have developed a spinal CSF leak, your body may show the following signs:

  1. Headaches that may worsen when you stand or sit down and lessen or disappear when you lie down.
  2. Headaches worsen when you exert-for example, when you cough or sneeze.
  3. In rare cases, headaches may start suddenly. It is called a thunderclap headache.

Other symptoms of spinal CSF leak are as follows:

  1. Neck or shoulder aches
  2. Ringing in the ears
  3. Hearing changes
  4. Light-headedness
  5. Nausea or vomiting
  6. Alterations in mental state, vision, or behavior
  7. Absence of the sense of smell
  8. Blurry, double-imaged, or altered fields of vision
  9. Sensitivity to light and sound
  10. Balance problems
  11. Neck discomfort and stiffness
  12. Shoulder and arm aches

If you have developed a cranial CSF leak, your body may show signs of the following:

  1. Clear discharge from the nose or ears
  2. Loss of hearing
  3. Metallic taste in your mouth
  4. Meningitis 

Who Is Most Likely to Have a CSF Leak?

Women are more likely to develop a CSF leak. It can also affect people who have: 

  • Undergone surgery on and around the spine in the past
  • Obesity
  • Obstructive sleep apnea or high blood pressure
  • Injured their head in the past
  • Tumour near the base of the skull
  • A malformed inner ear or skull base

What is the Diagnostic Procedure for a CSF Leak?

If you notice any symptoms, as mentioned above, visit your healthcare provider immediately. Your healthcare provider may do a physical examination and check your medical history.

The doctor may perform an endoscopy of your nose to get a clear view of the potential problems. Your doctor may ask you to tilt forward to check for nasal drainage. If there is drainage, a sample is taken for a lab examination. Your ears will also be examined to look for CSF leaks.

In order to check for issues with your brain or spinal cord, your doctor might also request tests like MRICT scan, Myelography (a spine-related imaging method), Cisternography (spine and brain imaging procedure)

What Complications can a CSF Leak Cause?

If a CSF leak is left untreated, it may result in conditions such as meningitis – an inflammation of the membranes around the brain. CSF leak due to a hole or rupture of the dura membrane may cause a condition called tension pneumocephalus.

CSF leaks can occasionally be mistaken for sinusitis, migraines, or other headaches. Therefore, medical care must be sought as soon as the symptoms appear. 


What are the Treatment Options for a CSF Leak?

Your treatment options can differ depending on where the CSF leak occurred and what caused it. Your doctor may advise the first course of treatment: bed rest for a few days, hydration and elevating the head end of the bed . If this course fails, the doctor may suggest surgery to fix the leak. 

CSF leak in the head:

If a CSF leak occurs in the brain, a nasal endoscopy may fix the problem. Your doctor may use several medical devices and materials, including an artificial graft and medical adhesive. The surgeon may also use your body fat, muscle, or mucosal lining from numerous locations, a bony cement, or a tissue flap to close the hole in the dura mater.

Your doctor may also perform a lumbar drain in the lower back to release pressure if there is excessive fluid build-up in the brain.

CSF leak in the spine:

 Your doctor could use the following therapies to stop the spinal cord leak.

  1. Epidural blood patch: A treatment that injects your own blood into the spinal cord to produce blood clots to stop the leak
  2. Sealant: To seal the hole and stop the CSF leak, a specific adhesive may be applied either by itself or combined with your blood in the manner previously described.
  3. Surgery: Surgery is only done in cases where all other treatments fail and the exact location of the leak is known. Surgery may entail closing the CSF leak with sutures or fat or muscle graft patches.
  4. Trans-venous embolization. This procedure is a minimally invasive, catheter-based approach for treating CSF-venous fistulas. It involves using glue to close the defective vein from within.

What are the Measures to be Taken During the Recovery Period?

Your doctor would advise you to follow the below measures to recover better:

  • Avoid lifting heavy objects
  • Do not blow your nose
  • Avoid using straws
  • Keep your back straight when you move
  • Use a stool softener to avoid straining to pass feces
  • Avoid bending, stretching, lifting, or twisting
  • Keep your mouth open when you cough or sneeze to relieve pressure.


Although CSF leak is rare, it can result in severe or unpleasant symptoms. Modern medicine and technological advancements make it easier and faster for healthcare professionals to identify and treat this issue. The outlook for this ailment is highly bright because providers can now treat this health condition more effectively than they could in the past.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is a CSF leak preventable?

CSF leak, in most people, is not preventable. But wearing safety equipment and helmets can prevent injuries that may lead to CSF leaks. 

Why does double vision occur as a symptom of CSF leak?

The downward pressure of your brain causes problems with the nerves supplying the eye. This causes double vision or blurred vision. 

Verified By Apollo Doctors
At Apollo, we believe that easily accessible, reliable health information can make managing health conditions an empowering experience. AskApollo Online Health Library team consists of medical experts who create curated peer-reviewed medical content that is regularly updated and is easy-to-understand.

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