Spinal Epidural Abscess: Diagnosis, Management, and Outcomes

J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2020 Nov 1;28(21):e929-e938. doi: 10.5435/JAAOS-D-19-00685.


An infection of the spinal epidural space, spinal epidural abscess (SEA) is a potentially devastating entity that is rising in incidence. Its insidious presentation, variable progression, and potential for precipitous neurologic decline make diagnosis and management of SEA challenging. Prompt diagnosis is key because treatment delay can lead to paralysis or death. Owing to the nonspecific symptoms and signs of SEA, misdiagnosis is alarmingly common. Risk factor assessment to determine the need for definitive MRI reduces diagnostic delays compared with relying on clinical or laboratory findings alone. Although decompression has long been considered the benchmark for SEA, considerable risk associated with spinal surgery is noted in an older cohort with multiple comorbidities. Nonoperative management may represent an alternative in select cases. Failure of nonoperative management is a feared outcome associated with motor deterioration and poor clinical outcomes. Recent studies have identified independent predictors of failure and residual neurologic dysfunction, recurrence, and mortality. Importantly, these studies provide tools that generate probabilities of these outcomes. Future directions of investigation should include external validation of existing algorithms through multi-institutional collaboration, prospective trials, and incorporation of powerful predictive statistics such as machine learning methods.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / administration & dosage
  • Conservative Treatment*
  • Decompression, Surgical / methods*
  • Diffusion Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Epidural Abscess / complications
  • Epidural Abscess / diagnosis*
  • Epidural Abscess / etiology
  • Epidural Abscess / therapy*
  • Epidural Space*
  • Humans
  • Nervous System Diseases / etiology
  • Nervous System Diseases / prevention & control
  • Recurrence
  • Treatment Failure
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents