Infections of the Spinal Cord and Brain: What You Need to Know

by lyndal, April 19, 2013

brain infection xray 300x199 Infections of the Spinal Cord and Brain: What You Need to Know Neurosurgeons are responsible for the care of all diseases of the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerves, and the surrounding bone and tissue. Although our professionals at BASIC Spine tend to focus on aberrations of the spinal cord and vertebrae, we are also knowledgeable in the area of brain diseases.

Many brain infections can lead to neurological problems, and can require brain surgery to remove pockets of infection or to apply physical treatments. It is important for those who have problems with the spine and brain to know what infections may occur and how to prevent them.

The infections of the nervous system can occur for a variety of reasons. For instance, skull fractures or any opening in the skull or spinal cord puts the entire nervous system at risk. This includes having problems following a spinal puncture or procedure that comes close to the spinal cord, such as an epidural injection.

Although brain and spinal infections are rare, they are still considered a risk of most spinal procedures, and it helps to know the differences between the various types of bacteria that can cause infections. Knowing the symptoms will help you spot problems early and potentially save you the pain of a protracted infection.


Meningitis is the most common type of neurological infection, and it describes an assault on the protective lining that surrounds both the brain and spinal cord called the meninges. This type of infection comes in two primary flavors: bacterial and viral. Viral meningitis is rarely severe, often caused by the viruses such as the chicken pox virus, and can be treated with anti-viral medications. In most cases, supportive therapy, such as treating headaches or flu-like symptoms, is the only treatment necessary for viral meningitis.

It is bacterial meningitis that is the most troublesome, and it can be life threatening. It is caused by a handful of different bacteria, and the condition can occur after any break in the skull, such as a fracture or surgical incision, or as a result of congenital defects. Some symptoms include headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, fever, confusion, altered consciousness, and an inability to tolerate bright lights or loud noises.

In addition, the inflammation around the brain can lead to shock, and a stay in an intensive care unit may be necessary for life saving treatment. Antibiotics are an important component of treatment, and steroids are sometimes used to decrease inflammation. Untreated bacterial meningitis can lead to death, but most patients who receive treatment recover well.


Encephalitis is closely related to meningitis. Encephalitis describes infection and inflammation of the brain, while meningitis usually refers to inflammation around the spinal cord. In fact, when both are present, the condition is referred to as meningoencephalitis. The two are distinct infections, although there is quite a bit of overlap. Encephalitis without any meninges involvement is usually the result of a viral infection, such as rabies, polio, herpes simplex-1, and measles.

Encephalitis is usually diagnosed by MRI, and lumbar punctures are only performed after the scan indicates that there is no pressure on the brain. Treatment is usually supportive of symptoms, and as in meningitis, shock sometimes occurs.

This may indicate a need for medications to control blood pressure and possible mechanical ventilation. Anti-viral medications are of limited usage, and they are dependent upon the type of virus present. For instance, acyclovir is often used for herpes simplex-1, and it can help to decrease the activity of the virus in encephalitis. Steroids are also used to control the inflammation.

Brain Abscess

An abscess in the brain is essentially a pocket of infected material buried somewhere in the brain tissue. In addition to causing the signs and symptoms of infection, from fever to shock, they can also increase pressure in the skull and cause neurological symptoms.

Nearly all brain abscesses have an outside cause, and only very rarely do they arise without some other agent in the body creating the abscess. If the causative factor is not found, then the abscess can come back and threaten the life of the patient.

These lesions can be caused by several agents. Compound fractures of the skull and penetrating trauma are obvious initial insults for the formation of a brain abscess, but they are not the only ones. Middle ear infections are a common cause of brain abscesses, and some congenital heart diseases can lead to a formation of this condition. Finally, infections of the sinuses can sometimes lead to the infection traveling into the brain.

Antibiotics are the primary course of treatment, and they are more effective when typed against the actual bacteria present. In addition, surgery to decrease intracranial pressure and drain the abscess remains a vital component of effective treatment of brain abscesses.


At BASIC Spine, we help treat patients with trauma and perform surgery that can rarely introduce bacteria into the neurological system. We are well aware of the types and complications of brain and spinal infections, and know how to treat them quickly and effectively. If you think you or a loved one may have some sort of infection, contact an emergency center immediately.

If you have been diagnosed with an infection from back pain treatments, please contact us for further diagnosis and treatment of your condition.

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