Background: Pneumocephalus usually results from trauma, infection, neoplasm, or iatrogenic causes. Barotrauma-induced spontaneous pneumocephalus is extremely rare, usually seen in divers or occassionally with air travel.
Case report: We report a case of a 61-yr-old female presenting with confusion, fever, and respiratory failure one day after developing sudden nausea, vomiting, and headache during descent on a commercial airliner. Pneumocephalus and meningitis were present on admission. Sinus computed tomography (CT) showed pansinusitis and a tiny bone defect in the posterior wall of the right sphenoid sinus, through which a cisternogram later showed free communication with the prepontine cistern. An orbital CT 2 yr earlier after a fall showed the bone defect, with no other areas of abnormality or fracture. After repair of defects by otolaryngology and appropriate antibiotics, she did well and was eventually discharged.
Discussion: Changes in aircraft cabin pressure likely resulted in rupture of dura and arachnoid layers beneath the pre-existing bony defect, predisposed by existing sinus disease. The pathophysiology, implications, and potential sources of spontaneous pneumocephalus, as well as risks of postcraniotomy and post-trauma air-travel, are discussed.