Cardinal Presentations

This post is part of a series called “Cardinal Presentations”, based on Rosen’s Emergency Medicine (8th edition).

Pathophysiology of Headache (“cephalalgia”)

  • Sensation via meninges and blood vessels, mediated via CN V.

High-Risk Historical Features (indications for imaging)

  • Sudden onset (seconds/minutes), patient recalls activity at onset
  • Worst in life or change in character from established headache
  • Fever, neck pain/stiffness
  • Altered mental status
  • Malignancy
  • Coagulopathy: iatrogenic, hepatopathy, dialysis
  • Immunocompromised
  • Rare: CO exposure, jaw claudication, PCKD

Location of Pain

Headache Location

  1. Unilateral: migraine
  2. Periorbital: glaucoma, CVT, optic neuritis, cluster
  3. Facial/maxillary: trigeminal neuralgia, sinusitis
  4. Temporal: GCA
  5. Occipital: cerebellar stroke
  6. Nuchal: meningitis

Evaluation of Headache 2

Evaluation of Headache

Characteristics of Primary Headaches

Type Location Duration Quality Associated symptoms Comment
Migraine Unilateral Hours to days Throbbing Photophobia, phonophobia Atypical migraines with neurological findings (basilar, ophthalmoplegic, ophthalmic, hemiplegic)
Tension Bilateral Minutes to days Constricting None
Cluster Unilateral, periorbital Minutes to hours Throbbing Conjunctival injection, lacrimation, rhinorrhea, miosis, eyelid edema Males 90%, triggered by EtOH.

Physical Examination Findings

Vital Signs
Fever: present in 95% of patients with meningitis
Trauma: signs of basilar skull fracture
Temporal artery tenderness/induration: GCA
Pericranial muscle tenderness: tension headache
Trigger point, Tinnel sign: occipital neuralgia
Pupillary defects: aneurysm with CN III compression
Papilledema, absence of spontaneous venous pulsations: elevated intracranial pressure
EOM abnormalities: ICH, mass lesion, neuropathy (DM, Lyme)
Horner syndrome (ptosis, miosis, anhidrosis): carotid dissection
Visual field defect: stroke, atypical migraine
Conjunctival injection: glaucoma (fixed, mid-size pupil, elevated intraocular pressure), cluster headache
Thrush: immunocompromise
Tenderness to palpation, abnormal transillumination: sinusitis
Resistance to supine neck flexion: meningitis
Kernig: supine position, hip flexed, knee flexed, resistance to knee extension
Brudzinski: supine position, neck flexion results in knee flexion
Jolt accentuation: patient rotates head side-to-side, 2-3 times/sec exacerbates headache

CSF Analysis 4

Test Bacterial Viral Fungal/TB
Opening pressure >15cm H20 Normal Normal
WBC (cells/mm3) >1,000 <100 Variable
Differential PMN Lymphocytes Lymphocytes
Protein (mg/dL) >250 >50 >50
Glucose (mg/dL) <10 Normal <45


  1. Russi, C. (2013). Headache. In Rosen’s Emergency Medicine – Concepts and Clinical Practice (8th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 170-175). Elsevier Health Sciences.
  2. Godwin SA, Villa J. “Acute headache in the ED: Evidence-Based Evaluation and Treatment Options.” Emerg Med Pract 2001; 3(6): 1-32.
  3. Edlow, J. A., Panagos, P. D., Godwin, S. A., Thomas, T. L., & Decker, W. W. (2008). Clinical Policy: Critical Issues in the Evaluation and Management of Adult Patients Presenting to the Emergency Department With Acute Headache. Annals of emergency medicine, 52(4), 407–436. doi:10.1016/j.annemergmed.2008.07.001
  4. Seehusen, D. A., Reeves, M. M., & Fomin, D. A. (2003). Cerebrospinal fluid analysis. American family physician, 68(6), 1103–1108.
  5. WikEM: Headache