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Drainage of syrinx followed by shunt insertionShunting of the syrinx cavity can be performed using syringoperitoneal, syringopleural, syringosubarachnoid, or ventriculoperitoneal shunts. Most shunting procedures involve laminectomies and duraplasties prior to the insertion of shunts (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Drainage of syrinx followed by shunt insertion. (Elliot, NSJ 2008b)

Table 1: Shunting


In all of the studies, no shunting procedure was found to be superior to another. Schaan and Jaksche (2001) in a cohort study assessed the efficacy of syringomyelia treatment in three groups of patients: Group One received various shunts only, Group Two received shunting followed by surgical creation of a pseudomeningocele, and Group Three was treated with the pseudomeningocele only. The study found improvement in sensory and motor deficits, pain and syringobulbia in all three groups. However, more patients experienced greater pain post-surgery in the shunting only group than the other two groups.

Falci et al. (1999) demonstrated that untethering and shunt tube placement among individuals without prior surgery can significantly improve light touch, pinprick and motor scores. Two case series (Lee et al. 2001; Lee et al. 2000) further examined untethering and shunting treatment in individuals with syringomyelia. In the study by Lee et al. (2001), patients were divided into three groups: untethering only, shunting only, and untethering and shunting. Improvement in motor and sensory functioning was observed in all three groups. In the first group, untethering only, improvement in spasticity was more common; while the shunting only group found gait improvement to be the most common. Furthermore, shunting alone has been reported to significantly improve pain (Hess & Foo 2001; Hida et al. 1994), strength (Hess & Foo 2001), motor function (Hida et al. 1994) and sensation (Hess & Foo 2001; Hida et al. 1994) in patients with syringomyelia, although, a high rate of shunt failure (36-50%) has been reported (Hess & Foo 2001; Hida et al. 1994).

Further, a case study by Ghobrial et al. (2015) reported on a patient who had received T2 and T3 laminectomies followed by arachnoidolysis and syringopleural shunt placement. Despite immediate improvement in upper-extremity strength and myelopathy, the patient presented with a unilateral deltoid palsy. Electromyography and nerve conduction velocity conducted at a three-month follow-up revealed a C-5 palsy with a lesion in the C-5 nerve root. The cause for the palsy was speculated by Ghobrial et al. (2015) to be the result of critical traction on the C-5 nerve root after a positional change post-surgery with axial imaging revealing a dorsal shift at the C-4 and C-5 level. The authors acknowledged that such a consequence of syrinx decompression has not been reported in past literature; however, this could be due to the low prevalence of syringomyelia and spinal syrinx (Ghobrial et al. 2015).

One case control study (Ronen et al. 1999) reviewed charts of patients receiving either rehabilitation only or rehabilitation and shunting for syringomyelia. The study found 80% of patients in the shunting and rehabilitation group experienced functional and neurological deterioration, while patients in the rehabilitation group remained either unchanged or improved. One must be careful when drawing conclusions from such a study because allocation to either group was dictated by receiving the treatment, which presumably was given to those patients already deteriorating or those were considered at a higher risk of deterioration.

Ushewokunze et al. (2010) studied the adverse events after laminectomy and shunting and reported a reduction in syrinx size among 21 of 40 patients and a stabilization of symptoms among 27 of 40. However, symptoms deteriorated for 13 individuals including pain, neurological deficit, infection and CSF leakage. In 17 individuals, a second surgical procedure was required to improve deteriorating symptoms.

Finally, a study by Karam et al. (2014) revealed that patients who received both shunting and duraplasty were less likely to require reoperations (3/11 patients) compared with patients who received a shunt only with 10 of 16 requiring revisions and reoperations. However, this contrast was not statistically significant. Overall, 14 patients (52%) experienced an improvement in symptoms, 10 (37%) remained stable whilst three (11%) reported a progression of symptoms without improvement. In addition, a reduction in syrinx size was reported which correlated significantly with clinical improvement as measured by Odom Score. Only one patient experienced complications post-surgery with pain and dysphagia reported; however, it was later revealed the patient had developed another syrinx larger than before. The patients received another shunt and duraplasty which resulted in improvements reported at three-month follow-up.


There is level 2 evidence (from one cohort, two pre-post, and five case series studies; Karam et al. 2014; Ushewokenze et al. 2010; Schaan & Jaksche 2001; Falci et al. 1999; Lee et al. 2000; Lee et al. 2001; Hess & Foo 2001; Hida et al. 1994) that shunting improves pain, motor function and sensory loss in some SCI patients with syringomyelia; however, a high rate of shunt failure has been observed; these findings are tempered by level 4 evidence (from one pre-post study; Karam et al. 2014) that reported minimal clinical improvement post shunting with or without duraplasty.

  • Shunting of the syrinx cavity improves pain, motor function and sensory loss in some SCI patients post syringomyelia