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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1] Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Qasim Khurshid, M.B.B.S.[2]


Arachnoiditis is a term used to describe thickening, inflammation, and scaring of the arachnoid membrane, which is the middle layer surrounding the central nervous system. These abnormalities may be self-limited or may cause compression of the nerve roots and spinal cord. Patients may report a variety of clinical symptoms, including severe back pain that persists at rest, perineal/saddle numbness, neurological deficits, skin rashes, and sympathetic or vascular changes. The cause of arachnoiditis is unknown but may occur as a result of invasion (surgery), neuraxial injections, certain myelograms, infections, blood, a herniated disc, or tumors. Diagnosis is based on symptoms, and magnetic resonance imaging. Unfortunately, the treatment of arachnoiditis is difficult and limited and should focus on symptomatic management.

Historical Perspective

The phenomenon of adhesive arachnoiditis was first described by Quinke in 1893 in a case report. In 1897, Schwarz wrote about signs and symptoms of arachnoiditis caused by syphilis. Elkington wrote about the classic description of arachnoiditis in 1936 and termed it as meningitis serosa circumscripta spinalis. He also described various presentations of arachnoiditis in 1951. Foix and Alajouanine described a noninfectious spinal arachnoid scar reaction in 1926 and termed it as hypertrophic vascular ascending myelitis. Ransome and Monterio mentioned that tuberculous meningitis might present as extensive spinal arachnoiditis. The first case of arachnoiditis was associated with syphilis.[1][2][3]


Arachnoiditis may be classified according to National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) into 8 subtypes:

  • Adhesive Arachnoiditis
  • Arachnoiditis Ossificans
  • Cerebral Arachnoiditis
  • Hereditary Arachnoiditis
  • Neoplastic Arachnoiditis
  • Optochiasmatic Arachnoiditis
  • Postmyelographic Arachnoiditis
  • Rhinosinusogenic Cerebral Arachnoiditis

Arachnoiditis may be classified according to Delamarter's MRI classification into 3 subtypes:

  • Type I: Appears as an adhesive mass of adherent roots centrally in the thecal sac, considered mild arachnoiditis.
  • Type II: The empty sac, the roots adhere peripherally to the meninges.

Wilkinson developed another classification system that divided the myelographic appearances into four groups:

  • Type II: An annular or a circumferential defect with a bilateral notch and only filiform passage of the medium.
  • Type III: Complete transverse obstruction with the picture of stalagmites, candle-guttering, or paintbrush defects.
  • Type IV: An infundibuliform cul-de-sac with loss of radicular striation, a vitreous appearance, and cutting-off of the root sleeves.




Common causes of arachnoiditis include the following:[7]

Differentiating arachnoiditis from other Diseases

Onset Disease Symptoms Gold Standard


CT/MRI Findings Other Investigation Findings


Associated Features
Sudden Epidural hematoma [11][12][13][14]
  • Dull
  • Throbbing
  • One sided or all around
CT scan without contrast Biconvex lens shaped hematoma which expand inward toward the brain rather than along the inside of the skull

Headache is associated with: Lumbar puncture for CSF
Gradual Intracranial mass[17][18] Morning headache MRI
  • CT or MRI is the initial test to detect intracranial lesions (ring enhancing lesions).
  • These imaging tests determine the location of intracranial mass lesion(s) and help in guiding therapy.
Spinal disc herniation[19][20][21][22] Soft central nucleus pulposus bulging out, lower back pain, leg pain, tingling, numbness, and reflex changes
Vertebral osteomyelitis[23][24]
Arachnoiditis .[25][26][27] MRI MRI findings include adherent nerve roots located centrally in the thecal sac, empty sac( roots are adherent to the walls of the thecal wall), and a mass of soft tissue replacing the subarachnoid space Inflammatory makers like

Epidemiology and Demographics

Arachnoiditis is a rare disorder. Its exact incidence is hard to determine as its difficult-to-diagnose condition with a wide range of clinical presentations. Some cases of arachnoiditis may go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Therefore the exact incidence of arachnoiditis remains not only unknown but also likely significantly underestimated. However, recently the number of lumbar arachnoiditis cases are increasing due to lumbar spine surgeries and spinal anesthesia.[28] [29]

Arachnoiditis affects more females than males because two-thirds of pregnant females receive spinal or epidural anesthesia during child delivery.

Risk Factors

The major risk-factors of arachnoiditis are briefly highlighted below:


There is insufficient evidence to recommend routine screening for arachnoiditis.

Natural History, Complications, and Prognosis

Symptoms of arachnoiditis often start after many years of the suspected inciting event. Chronic arachnoiditis can vary in severity from mild to moderate or may progress to severe and catastrophic, disrupting quality of life. There may be remissions and relapses, however symptoms may resolve with treatment. The course of chronic arachnoiditis is typically irregular, but it is progressive in up to 33% of patients and non-progressive in 50-59%.

Aside from the chronic pain and various possible neurologic deficits, common complications of arachnoiditis may include hydrocephalus, syringomyelia, and arachnoid cysts. A rare complication is internal malabsorptive hydrocephalus.[30][31]

Supportive care and symptomatic management is the mainstay of treatment. Although this is not a life-threatening condition, the quality of life can be significantly compromised due to pain and neurological deficits. The course of the disease is very unpredictable. The majority of the patients have a stable neurological disability that does not progress over time.


Diagnostic Study of Choice

There is no single best test for the definitive diagnosis of arachnoiditis. Diagnosis is based on clinical presentation, signs, and the supporting MRI or CT or myelography. The gold standard is MRI.

History and Symptoms

Patients suggestive of arachnoiditis should be asked about any history of spinal trauma, spinal cord infections, spinal surgery, or spinal anesthesia. Sometimes an inciting event can not be identified. Arachnoiditis symptoms vary from subclinical to advance and serve. Symptoms of arachnoiditis are challenging to distinguish from other types of compressive neurological diseases because many of the symptoms are similar, and the disease onset can be months to years from the initial injury. Patients will complain about pain, numbness, paraesthesia, and tingling in affected nerve root or roots.

  • Neurologic deficits

Physical Examination

The findings of the physical examination depend on which nerves are affected by the disease. A physical examination can reveal changes in reflexes, sensation, proprioception, or weakness.

Abnormal findings on the physical exam may include the following.

Laboratory Findings

  • There are no diagnostic laboratory findings associated with Arachnoiditis.
  • While the definitive diagnosis of arachnoiditis requires imaging, other tests contribute to understanding the risks of disease and may provide clues to the selection of treatment options. These tests include those that access the underlying inflammation and other hormonal levels that may be altered in chronic pain conditions. Addressing these conditions may improve the quality of life.
  1. CBC
  2. VDRL
  3. Inflammatory makers
  4. Hormone Assessments


There are no ECG findings associated with Arachnoiditis


There are no x-ray findings associated with Arachnoiditis. Routine plain radiographs can not be used to evaluate spinal cord and nerve roots. However, the contents of the thecal sac can be evaluated with myelography with intrathecal administration of iodinated contrast. Conus medullaris usually terminates between T12-L1 and L1-L2 levels in adults. Below the level of conus medullaris termination, nerve roots float freely within the thecal sac. Meningeal inflammation can lead to thickened nerve roots, the formation of CSF loculations, and blockage of CSF flow.

Echocardiography or Ultrasound

There are no echocardiography/ultrasound findings associated with Arachnoiditis

CT scan


  • Brain MRI may be helpful in the diagnosis of Arachnoiditis. Findings on MRI suggestive of/diagnostic of Arachnoiditis include:[33][34]
  • MRI with Contrast can be used to differentiate arachnoiditis from other diseases such as infections and tumors, but the contract is not needed to visualize the appearance of the characteristic of arachnoiditis
  • MRI has a high specificity of 100%, high sensitivity of 92 % as well as high accuracy of 99%

MRI showing empty thecal sac sign in arachnoiditis Case courtesy of Assoc Prof Frank Gaillard,, rID: 14055,Case courtesy of Assoc Prof Frank Gaillard, <a href=""></a>. From the case <a href="">rID: 14055</a>

Other Imaging Findings

There are no other image findings associated with arachnoiditis.

Other Diagnostic Studies

There are no other diagnostic studies associated with Arachnoiditis


Arachnoiditis is a difficult condition to treat. Treatment is limited to alleviation of pain and other symptoms. Surgical intervention generally has a poor outcome and only provides temporary relief. Steroid injection is generally discouraged and may worsen the condition.

Medical Therapy

Treatment of arachnoiditis is palliative, and mostly medications are used for this purpose. Antidepressant and anticonvulsant analgesics are the mainstays of treatment. However, other classes of medications can also be beneficial. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved several medications for neuropathic pain syndromes: pregabalin and duloxetine for diabetic neuropathy and gabapentin and pregabalin for postherpetic neuralgia. These medications are often used for the treatment of arachnoiditis with variable efficacy. These medications are often started at a low dosage and titrated upward as tolerated. Most of these medications take a few weeks to take analgesic effects to be reached. Some examples of these medications dosage are given in the table.[35]

Dosing regimens for Anticolvusant and antidepressant medications
Medication Starting dose Dose increase and interval Maximal dose
Tricyclic anti depressant 10-25mg at night 10-25 mg per week 150 mg /day
Duloxetine 20-30mg per day 20-30 mg per week 60mg /day
Pregabalin 50-75mg BID 50-75 mg per week 600mg /day
Gabapentine 100-300mg BID 100-300 mg per week 1800-3600mg /day

Anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) are commonly used with modest efficacy. The majority of the patients with arachnoiditis have a concomitant lumbar disc herniation or osteoarthritis of the facet joints that can respond to anti-inflammatory medications. Likewise, back pain in these patients can also be treated with trials of muscle relaxants or antispasticity agents such as baclofen and tizanidine. Opiates are often prescribed with varying degrees of usefulness. In general, neuropathic pain is less responsive to opiates. One of the significant limitations of opiate use is the development of tolerance that requires dose escalation. Medications side effects are common. Antidepressant and anticonvulsant analgesics are often causing sedation or altered mental status. Opiates can produce sedation as well as constipation. NSAIDs that are often used to treat musculoskeletal pain associated with arachnoiditis can cause gastrointestinal side effects, can affect kidneys and can aggravate hypertension. Rehabilitation modalities are generally considered safe, but the inappropriate application of superficial modalities can cause thermal injury. Spinal nerve stimulation is contraindicated in patients having cardiac pacemakers. Therapeutic exercises can aggravate the pain.


Surgical intervention has a limited role in the treatment of arachnoiditis. There is no surgical method to untangle the nerve roots. Indications for surgery include rapidly progressive neurological deterioration such as myelopathy due to syringomyelia or cauda equina syndrome from arachnoiditis ossificans. In these cases, surgical intervention such as stent placement or removal of calcified mass can be done. These procedures are done to halt the progression of neurological deterioration.


Rehabilitation intervention can be divided into modalities for therapeutic exercises to improve functional status and for pain management. Modalities such as ice application and heat application are useful for mechanical back pain that is often associated with arachnoiditis. Electrical nerve stimulation is primarily used to treat neuropathic pain, but it can also treat associated musculoskeletal pain. Unfortunately, exercises provide little benefit for symptomatic improvement, but exercise is still the part of treatment. Therapeutic exercises such as stretching and aerobic exercises can improve musculoskeletal pain in a subset of patients. Patients with intractable pain often avoid exercise due to fear of pain aggravation. Because of this they often become deconditioned and benefit from progressive exercise regimens.[35]


The most effective treatment for intractable pain that is associated with arachnoiditis is spinal cord nerve stimulation. This procedure involves the placement of the stimulating electrode over the dorsal aspect of the spinal cord that can be placed either subcutaneously or through a laminectomy. The exact location of electrode placement depends on the location of the patient's pain. Typically, the patient undergoes a percutaneous trial to test efficacy before placing permanent implantation. Spinal cord stimulation is more effective for neuropathic pain as compared to musculoskeletal pain. Only limited data is available for the support of neuraxial corticostriatal injections such as nerve blocks and epidural steroids. These epidural injections may provide short term symptom-free intervals.

Primary Prevention

Following strategies can be used to prevent the occurrence of arachnoiditis:

  • The necessity for invasive surgery should be avoided unless required, and there is no other alternative.
  • Women could select natural childbirth that usually does not require epidural administration of anesthesia.
  • Physicians could avoid unnecessary invasive investigative techniques such as intrathecal injections of drugs , dyes, or chemicals.

Secondary Prevention

There are no established measures for the secondary prevention of Arachnoiditis

Future or Investigational Therapies

According to recent research, cytokines produced by various cells are in the body may be responsible for generating pain. Medications that block the action or release of cytokines may be useful for reducing pain. Various kinds of these medications are being used to treat painful chronic diseases such as Crohn,s disease, and Rheumatoid arthritis. Thalidomide, an anti-cytokine medication is being evaluated for its effectiveness in treating the pain associated with Arachnoiditis.

External links


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  25. Quiles M, Marchisello PJ, Tsairis P. Lumbar adhesive arachnoiditis. Etiologic and pathologic aspects. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1978;3(1):45-50. doi:10.1097/00007632-197803000-00010
  26. Burton CV. Lumbosacral arachnoiditis. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1978;3(1):24-30. doi:10.1097/00007632-197803000-00006
  27. Miaki K, Matsui H, Nakano M, Tsuji H. Nutritional supply to the cauda equina in lumbar adhesive arachnoiditis in rats. Eur Spine J. 1999;8(4):310-316. doi:10.1007/s005860050179
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  32. APA Dong, Aisheng, MD*; Zuo, Changjing, MD*; Zhang, Ping, MSc†; Lu, Jianping, MD‡; Bai, Yushu, MD§ MRI and FDG PET/CT Findings in 3 Cases of Spinal Infectious Arachnoiditis, Clinical Nuclear Medicine: October 2014 - Volume 39 - Issue 10 - p 900-903
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