Background: With the improvement in neuroimaging and microsurgical techniques, brain stem cavernous malformations are no longer considered inoperable. Surgical indications for brainstem cavernoma are evolving, with better understanding of its natural history and decreasing surgical complications.
Methods: During 1986 through 1998, a series of 137 patients (4 patients each with two brain stem lesions, total number of lesions, 141) with brain stem cavernous malformations were treated microsurgically at Beijing Neurosurgery Institute. The age distribution, lesion location, and clinical presentations were analyzed. The bleeding rate, surgical indications and microsurgical techniques were also discussed.
Results: In our series, 92 of 137 cases (67.2%) suffered more than one hemorrhage. Female patients had a higher risk of recurrent hemorrhage than that of male patients. Unlike cavernomas malformations from other locations, repeated hemorrhages from brain stem malformations are much more common and usually lead to new neurologic deficits. Among all 137 surgically treated patients, there was no operative mortality. Ninety-nine patients (72.3%) either improved or remained clinically stable postoperatively. The size of the cavernoma/hematoma does not necessarily correlate with the surgical result. While the acute hematoma can facilitate the surgical dissection, longer clinical history with multiple hemorrhages often makes total surgical resection difficult, partially because of the firmer capsule that may not shrink or collapse after hematoma is released. Pathologically those capsules were associated with more hyaline degeneration, fibrous proliferation and even calcifications. During the follow-up period between 0.5 to 11 years in 129 cases, 115 patients (89.2%) have been working, studying, or doing house work. Three patients (2.3%) suffered recurrent hemorrhages.
Conclusions: Surgical indications of brain stem cavernoma include (1) progressive neurologic deficits; (2) overt acute or subacute hemorrhage on MRI either inside or outside cavernous malformations with mass effect; (3) cavernoma/hematoma reaching brainstem surface (<2 mm brain tissue between cavernoma /hematoma and pial surface). Grave clinical presentations like coma, respiratory, or cardiac instability are not surgical contraindications. Emergent surgical evacuation may lead to satisfactory outcome. Repeated hemorrhages will worsen the pre-existing neurologic deficits and possibly make the surgical dissections more difficult. Patients with minimum, stable neurologic deficits and lesion/hematoma that has not reached the brain stem surface should be followed conservatively.