The emergency physician should be adept at the interpretation of computed tomography of the head, particularly for life-threatening processes where awaiting a radiologist interpretation may unnecessarily delay care.
As with the approach detailed previously for imaging of the abdomen and pelvis, a similar structured method for interpretation of head imaging exists and follows the mnemonic “Blood Can Be Very Bad”.
- Acute: hyperdense (50-100HU)
- 1-2wks: isodense with brain
- 2-3wks: hypodense with brain
- Intraparenchymal Hemorrhage/Contusions
- Sudden deceleration of the head causes the brain to impact on bony prominences (e.g., temporal, frontal, occipital poles).
- Non-traumatic hemorrhagic lesions seen more frequently in elderly and located in basal ganglia.
- Intraventricular Hemorrhage
- White density in otherwise black ventricular spaces, can lead to obstructive hydrocephalus and elevated ICP.
- Associated with worse prognosis in trauma.
- Subarachnoid Hemorrhage
- Hemorrhage into subarachnoid space usually filled with CSF (cistern, brain convexity).
- Extracranial Hemorrhage
- Presence of significant extracranial blood or soft-tissue swelling should point examiner to evaluation of underlying brain parenchyma, opposing brain parenchyma (for contrecoup injuries) and underlying bone for identification of fractures.
Evaluating the cisterns is important for the identification of increased intracranial pressures (assessed by effacement of spaces) and presence of subarachnoid blood.
- Circummesencephalic: CSF ring around midbrain and most sensitive marker for elevated ICP
- Suprasellar: Star-shaped space above the sella
- Quadrigeminal: W-shaped space at the top of the midbrain
- Sylvian: Bilateral space between temporal/frontal lobes
Evaluate the brain parenchyma, including an assessment of symmetry of the gyri/sulci pattern, midline shift, and a clear gray-white differentiation.
Evaluate the ventricles for dilation or compression. Compare the ventricle size to the size of cisterns, large ventricles with normal/compressed cisterns and sulcal spaces suggests obstruction.
Switch to bone windows to evaluate for fracture. The identification of small, linear, non-depressed skull fractures may be difficult to identify as they are often confused with sutures – surrogates include pneumocephalus, and abnormal aeration of mastoid air cells and sinuses. The Presence of fractures increases the suspicion for intracranial injury, search adjacent and opposing parenchyma and extra-axial spaces.
CT Head Interpretation
- Ill-defined lesion in right parietal white matter with a large amount of surrounding vasogenic edema with midline shift and right uncal herniation.
- Acute on subacute right extra-axial subdural hematoma.
- Effacement of basilar cisterns.
CT Head Interpretation
- Bilateral subacute subdural hematomas, left larger than right and associated with rightward midline shift.
- Left lateral ventricle is partially effaced.
CT Head Interpretation
Subdural hematoma with significant herniation
- Perron A. How to read a head CT scan. Emergency Medicine. 2008.
- Arhami Dolatabadi A, Baratloo A, Rouhipour A, et al. Interpretation of Computed Tomography of the Head: Emergency Physicians versus Radiologists. Trauma Mon. 2013;18(2):86–89. doi:10.5812/traumamon.12023.
As with the systematic approach preferred for the evaluation and management of other processes explored on this site, a similarly structured method for the interpretation of imaging commonly obtained in the emergency department may afford the same benefits – namely, the timely identification of pathology while avoiding costly missed diagnoses. In this post, I propose an approach to the interpretation of computed tomography of the abdomen and pelvis.
Solid Organs Down
Try It Yourself
CT Abdomen/Pelvis Interpretation
- Cystic lesion in the inferior right lobe of the liver most consistent with hepatic abscess.
- Multiple calcified gallstones in the gallbladder.
A 50 year-old male with a history of colonic mucinous adenocarcinoma on chemotherapy presented with a chief complaint of “vomiting”. He was unwilling to provide further history, repeating that he had vomited blood prior to presentation. His initial vital signs were notable for tachycardia. Physical examination showed some dried vomitus, brown in color, at the nares and lips; left upper quadrant abdominal tenderness to palpation; and guaiac-positive stool. Point-of-care hemoglobin was 3g/dL below the most recent measure two months prior. As his evaluation progressed, he developed hypotension and was transfused two units of uncrossmatched blood with adequate blood pressure response – he was started empirically on broad-spectrum antibiotics for an intra-abdominal source. Notable laboratory findings included a normal hemoglobin/hematocrit, acute kidney injury, and elevated anion gap metabolic acidosis presumably attributable to serum lactate of 10.7mmol/L. Computed tomography of the abdomen and pelvis demonstrated pneumoperitoneum with complex ascites concerning for bowel perforation. The patient deteriorated, was intubated, started on vasopressors and admitted to the surgical intensive care unit. The initial operative report noted extensive adhesions and perforated small bowel with feculent peritonitis. He has since undergone multiple further abdominal surgeries and remains critically ill.
Free air is seen diffusely in the non-dependent portions of the abdomen: in the anterior abdomen and pelvis, inferior to the diaphragm, and in the perisplenic region. There is complex free fluid in the abdomen.
Algorithm for the Evaluation of Hypotension1
This process for the evaluation of hypotension in the emergency department was developed by Dr. Ravi Morchi. In the case above, a systematic approach to the evaluation of hypotension using ultrasonography and appropriately detailed physical examination may have expedited the patient’s care. The expertly-designed algorithm traverses the cardiovascular system, halting at evaluable checkpoints that may contribute to hypotension.
- The process begins with the cardiac conduction system to identify malignant dysrhythmias (bradycardia, or non-sinus tachycardia >170bpm), which, in unstable patients are managed with electricity.
- The next step assesses intravascular volume with physical examination or bedside ultrasonography of the inferior vena cava. Decreased right atrial pressure (whether due to hypovolemia, hemorrhage, or a distributive process) is evidenced by a small and collapsible IVC. If hemorrhage is suspected, further ultrasonography with FAST and evaluation of the abdominal aorta may identify intra- or retroperitoneal bleeding.
- If a normal or elevated right atrial pressure is identified, evaluate for dissociation between the RAP and left ventricular end-diastolic volume. This is typically caused by a pre- or intra-pulmonary obstructive process such as tension pneumothorax, cardiac tamponade, massive pulmonary embolism, pulmonary hypertension, or elevated intra-thoracic pressures secondary to air-trapping. Thoracic ultrasonography can identify pneumothorax, pericardial effusion, or signs of elevated right ventricular systolic pressures (RV:LV, septal flattening).
- Assuming adequate intra-vascular volume is arriving at the left ventricle, rapid echocardiography can be used to provide a gross estimate of cardiac contractility and point to a cardiogenic process. If there is no obvious pump failure, auscultation may reveal murmurs that would suggest systolic output is refluxing to lower-resistance routes (ex. mitral insufficiency, aortic insufficiency, or ventricular septal defect).
- Finally, if the heart rate is suitable, volume deficits are not grossly at fault, no obstructive process is suspected, and cardiac contractility is adequate and directed appropriately through the vascular tree, the cause may be distributive. Physical examination may reveal dilated capillary beds and low systemic vascular resistance.
- Morchi R. Diagnosis Deconstructed: Solving Hypotension in 30 Seconds. Emergency Medicine News. 2015.
Swirling mesenteric vessels in mid-pelvis associated with narrowed segments of small bowel and fluid-filled proximal small bowel raises concern for volvulus and small bowel obstruction.