Cerebral venous sinus thrombosis

Cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) is a rare form of stroke that results from thrombosis (a blood clot) of the dural venous sinuses, which drain blood from the brain. Symptoms may include headache, abnormal vision, any of the symptoms of stroke such as weakness of the face and limbs on one side of the body, and seizures. The diagnosis is usually by computed tomography (CT/CAT scan) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) employing radiocontrast to demonstrate obstruction of the venous sinuses by thrombus.

CT venogram showing a filling defect in the sagittal sinus (black arrow)

CT, MRI and angiography

There are various neuroimaging investigations that may detect cerebral sinus thrombosis. Cerebral edema and venous infarction may be apparent on any modality, but for the detection of the thrombus itself, the most commonly used tests are computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), both using various types of radiocontrast to perform a venogram and visualise the veins around the brain.

Computed tomography, with radiocontrast in the venous phase (CT venography or CTV), has a detection rate that in some regards exceeds that of MRI. The test involves injection into a vein (usually in the arm) of a radioopaque substance, and time is allowed for the bloodstream to carry it to the cerebral veins – at which point the scan is performed. It has a sensitivity of 75-100% (it detects 75-100% of all clots present), and a specificity of 81-100% (it would be incorrectly positive in 0-19%). In the first two weeks, the “empty delta sign” may be observed (in later stages, this sign may disappear).

Magnetic resonance venography employs the same principles, but uses MRI as a scanning modality. MRI has the advantage of being better at detecting damage to the brain itself as a result of the increased pressure on the obstructed veins, but it is not readily available in many hospitals and the interpretation may be difficult.

Cerebral angiography may demonstrate smaller clots than CT or MRI, and obstructed veins may give the “corkscrew appearance”.[1] This, however, requires puncture of the femoral artery with a sheath and advancing a thin tube through the blood vessels to the brain where radiocontrast is injected before X-ray images are obtained. It is therefore only performed if all other tests give unclear results or when other treatments may be administered during the same procedure.

Empty delta sign in a patient with superior sagittal sinus thrombosis. Transverse contrast-enhanced CT image reveals low-attenuating thrombus (arrow) within the superior sagittal sinus, surrounded by a triangular area of enhancement.


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