Law & Medicine

Don’t Take the Fall With Head Injuries

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The defendant physician did a good job of documenting a negative neurologic exam, which helped him convince the jury that the patient did not have any signs or symptoms when first evaluated. But in this patient, was imaging to rule out intracranial bleeding indicated?

As an oversimplification, we tend to think of intracranial hemorrhage in 2 varieties: the insidious and the bold. Subdural hematomas are stealthy, they are sneaky, and they prey on the old. They step out of the shadows to cause symptoms. They are the ninjas of intracranial hemorrhage. Beware.

Epidural hematomas and subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH) are the opposite. They classically present with a sudden and severe symptom complex: with epidural hematoma, the loss of consciousness, lucid interval, and final loss of consciousness; with SAH, the “worst in your life” thunder-clap headache, which may be heralded by a sentinel headache.1 When manifesting this way, they are brash, direct, and unsubtle to the point of being obnoxious—the Steven Stifler of intracranial bleeding.

This generalization is made to highlight the potentially sneaky nature of subdural hemorrhage. There are circumstances in which the clinical presentation of epidural hematoma and SAH will be more challenging. The question here is whether a negative initial neurologic exam can adequately screen for a potentially stealthy subdural hematoma.

Subdural hemorrhage is caused by rapidly changing velocity that may stretch and tear small bridging veins.2,3 Subdural hematoma is more common in the elderly, those who abuse alcohol, and those with a prior history of head trauma.4 As the brain shrinks with age or atrophy, the subdural space enlarges and traversing veins are stretched to cover a wider distance—rendering them vulnerable to rupture.5 These structures may also weaken as a result of low cerebrospinal fluid (intracranial hypotension); as pressure decreases (eg, from a leak), the brain’s buoyancy is reduced, causing traction on anchoring and supporting structures (eg, bridging veins).5 Injury to bridging veins can even occur as a result of a coup-contrecoup mechanism in the absence of direct physical impact.6,7 Bottom line: the injury itself may be subtle, requiring an index of suspicion to make the diagnosis.

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