How are headache and edema treated in brain metastasis?

Updated: Aug 01, 2018
  • Author: Victor Tse, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: Nicholas Lorenzo, MD, MHA, CPE  more...
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Causes of headache are cerebral edema with increased intracranial pressure and meningeal irritation secondary to infiltration of cancer cells. Other causes, such as hydrocephalus and hemorrhage, require surgical intervention.

The diagnosis is normally confirmed with radiographic studies.

Hydrocephalus is uncommon in metastatic disease. In most cases, carcinomatosis meningitis is the cause. In rare cases, obstruction of the aqueduct of Sylvan or the fourth ventricle is the cause.

Shunting of the ventricle is the treatment of choice. The most common concern with this maneuver is the possibility of systemic seeding of tumor cells into the peritoneal cavity.

Cerebral edema of metastatic disease is mainly vasogenic. Brain swelling causes a secondary insult to the surrounding healthy brain, which may worsen cognitive function and/or motor and sensory deficits. If severe, it compromises cerebral perfusion and results in cerebral infarction.

Dexamethasone is the treatment of choice. [12] It has the least mineralocorticoid effect of all steroids and is less likely than other steroids to be associated with infection or cognitive dysfunction. It does not increase the risk of myopathy. Common adverse effects are psychotic reaction (5%), GI bleed (less than 1%), and glucose intolerance (19%). The frequency of steroid complications depends on the duration of treatment (>3 wk increases risk). It is also associated with hypoalbuminemia, which increases the risk of adverse effects associated with steroid treatment.

The optimal dosage of dexamethasone vasogenic edema is 4 mg given intravenously or orally every 6 hours after a loading dose of 10 mg. Symptoms improve in 70-80% of patients within 48 hours of the start of treatment. High doses of steroid (6-10 mg q6h) may improve functional scores (70 vs 54) after 7-10 days of treatment. However, this trend is reversed after 3-4 weeks. Most physicians advocate an initial dose of 16 mg/day, which is tapered after 4-28 days. Adverse effects of steroids include GI bleeding, an increased rate of opportunistic infection, diabetes, and myopathy. In patients with cancer, one must be aware of the catabolic effect of steroids and provide nutritional supplements as needed.

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