Risk Management Pitfalls For Cervical Artery Dissections
“This patient has a left temporal headache that radiates into his left ear. His examination is benign, except his pupil is smaller on that side. I did a noncontrast CT head and it’s negative. The headache is probably just due to a hard game of basketball yesterday. I’m going to give him some IV ketorolac and send him out.”
Dissections can occur spontaneously or as a result of minor trauma, even from a basketball game. Failure to consider the diagnosis will result in a missed diagnosis. Headaches in carotid artery dissections can be nonspecific, but are mostly located in the frontal or temporal regions; the radiation to the ear is also characteristic. His examination is also concerning for a partial Horner syndrome. Both of those are suspicious for carotid artery dissection and warrant further vascular imaging.
“She has a history of migraines, and she says that this one is different from what she usually feels, but it definitely sounds like a migraine because it is unilateral, pulsatile, and she had a visual aura. I’m going to give her the usual migraine cocktail and see how she does.”
Not suspecting cervical arterial dissection in the beginning of the evaluation results in a significant delay to diagnosis. It can be many hours by the time she has a couple of migraine cocktails before you realize her headache isn’t better and you need to rethink your plan. Due to the risk of early stroke in these patients, a delay in diagnosis could lead to long-term neurological sequelae. Headaches in carotid dissections can be unilateral, pulsatile, and with an aura. Any time a patient with a history of migraines states that the symptoms are not typical, take note.
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