Massive cerebral swelling immediately after cranioplasty, a fatal and unpredictable complication: Report of 4 cases

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24 Scopus citations


Cranioplasty after decompressive craniectomy (DC) is associated with increased morbidity, but the reported mortality rate is low. Recently, some authors have reported a rare unexplained complication of sudden death in association with massive cerebral edema immediately after cranioplasty. The author reports on 4 patients who underwent cranioplasty after DC between January 2005 and August 2010 at his department and died because of massive cerebral edema immediately after uneventful surgery and anesthesia. All 4 of the new cases reported involved young male patients who underwent decompressive hemicraniectomy after traumatic brain injury. They developed massive cerebral swelling immediately after uneventful cranioplasty (3 patients) or after removal of an epidural hematoma several hours after surgery (1 patient). All 4 patients had a large skull defect and significantly sunken craniotomy site, and all were treated with a closed vacuum suction system that was placed under the scalp and kept open at the end of the cranioplasty procedure. After surgery, the patients' pupils became fixed and dilated, and brain CT scans showed massive brain edema. Despite emergency DC, the patients did not recover, and all 4 died. A MEDLINE search showed 8 similar cases that were reported previously. Fatal cerebral swelling after uneventful cranioplasty is a distinct clinical entity, although it is unpredictable. It is postulated that a negative pressure difference from the elimination of atmospheric pressure that had been chronically applied on the injured sinking brain in combination with the negative pressure applied by the closed subgaleal suction drain may lead to a massive brain shift toward the cranioplasty site and initiate a fatal vasomotor reaction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1188-1193
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Neurosurgery
Issue number5
StatePublished - Nov 2015


  • Cerebral edema
  • Complication
  • Cranioplasty
  • Death
  • Decompressive craniectomy
  • Traumatic brain injury

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Clinical Neurology


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