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Traumatic brain injury: Pathology review




Nervous system

Central nervous system disorders
Central and peripheral nervous system disorders
Peripheral nervous system disorders
Autonomic nervous system disorders
Nervous system pathology review

Traumatic brain injury: Pathology review


1 / 18 complete

USMLE® Step 1 style questions USMLE

18 questions

USMLE® Step 2 style questions USMLE

1 questions

A 30-year-old woman is brought to the emergency department following a fall during a climbing trip. Her partner, who accompanied her, reports that the patient fell from a 4-meter height and hit her head. En route to the hospital, the patient is comatose and unresponsive. Glasgow Coma Score is 3. She is sedated and intubated. On arrival, her temperature is 36.0°C (96.8°F), pulse is 43/min, respirations are 7/min and irregular, and blood pressure is 200/70 mmHg. On physical examination, her arms are stiff and bent, with clenched fists and outstretched legs. Both pupils are fixed and dilated. A non-contrast CT is obtained and shows a large biconvex-shaped lesion. Which of the following additional findings is most likely to be present?  


Content Reviewers:

Yifan Xiao, MD

At the emergency department, 65-year-old Christian came in complaining of headaches, vision problems, and memory loss. These symptoms have gradually progressed over the past couple of weeks.

On examination, there’s slurred speech, and his gait is unsteady. He has a history of chronic alcohol abuse. Head CT shows a “crescent-shaped” hyperdense mass that crosses the suture lines.

Later that day, 33-year-old Max is brought in after a fight. They reported being knocked unconscious, but regained consciousness after an unknown period of time.

Head CT is ordered and shows a “lens-shaped” hyperdense mass that doesn’t cross the suture lines. Max was very agitated and said they felt fine.

They then left the hospital against medical advice. Later that day, Max lost consciousness again and died at home.

Okay, so Christian has and Max had some form of traumatic brain injury. When an external force damages the head resulting in temporary or permanent brain dysfunction, we call it a traumatic brain injury, or TBI.

Now, as a direct result of the external force, TBIs can cause extra-axial and intra-axial injuries. Extra-axial injuries are within the skull but don’t involve the brain parenchyma.

The most high yield ones are epidural and subdural hematomas, as well as a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Intra-axial injuries - on the other hand - do involve the brain parenchyma, and the most high yield one for your exams is diffuse axonal injury.

Now, sometimes, trauma initiates a series of molecular events along with the primary brain injury, which can persist for hours, or even days.

These are referred to as “secondary brain injury”, and eventually can result in increased intracranial pressure, which in turn, has numerous consequences and for the exams, the most important is brain herniation.

Okay, now let’s take a closer look at these different types of traumatic brain injury, starting with the extra-axial injuries.

Epidural hematomas οccur when blood collects in the space between the dura mater (which is the outer layer of the meninges) and the inner aspect of the skull periosteum.

This happens when a linear fracture occurs at the region where the frontal, parietal, temporal, and sphenoid bones join together.

This region is called pterion, and it’s the thinnest part of the lateral wall of the skull. For the test, remember that a fracture at the pterion can tear open the middle meningeal artery (a branch of the maxillary artery) causing profuse bleeding.

The most important concept to keep in mind is that individuals with epidural hematoma classically have a period of loss of consciousness and then a lucid-interval.

During this time the individual regains consciousness and feels fine, but a lucid interval isn’t always seen. Symptoms are due to the build of blood trapped between the dura mater and skull, which increases intracranial pressure.

Now, what makes epidural hematomas so dangerous is that the dura mater is attached tightly to the sutures of the skull, so the blood can’t cross these sutures and is trapped with nowhere to go.

This means the intracranial pressure can increase rapidly. The individual can develop headaches, nausea, vomiting, and focal neurological symptoms like weakness, numbness, vision and auditory problems.

As the hematoma grows rapidly, it can cause a life threatening brain herniation resulting in the loss of consciousness, coma, and death.

A brain CT is diagnostic, and classically shows a convex, “lens-shaped” hyperdense collection of blood that does not cross the suture lines of the skull.

There can also be evidence of scalp hematoma due to the head trauma. In addition to the bleeding, there can be surrounding cerebral edema, and if the edema is significant, it can cause a shift of the midline to the contralateral side.

This signifies an impending brain herniation, most commonly a transtentorial herniation. Epidural hematomas are an emergency, and neurosurgical intervention is often necessary.

All right, moving onto subdural hematomas. For your exams, it’s important to know that a subdural hematoma occurs when blood collects between the dura mater (the outer layer of the meninges) and arachnoid mater, which is the middle layer of the meninges.

Another high yield fact you have to know is that, unlike epidural hematomas, the bleeding source is usually the bridging veins that connect the cerebral venous sinuses to the superficial veins of the skull.

Now, the bridging veins are very vulnerable to rapid acceleration or deceleration, so they are easily damaged in car crashes.

It’s also high yield to remember that when there’s brain atrophy and shrinkage - like in chronic alcohol users or the elderly - the bridging veins get stretched out.

So even minor head trauma, like walking into a door, can lead to a subdural hematoma in these individuals. Oftentimes, individuals don’t even remember the traumatic event, so it’s important to always consider a subdural hematoma especially in elderly individuals with neurological symptoms.

If a subdural hematoma is detected in an infant or young child, it could be due to non-accidental trauma, or child abuse.

Infants and children have large heads with relatively small brains, so vigorously shaking a young child can cause a subdural hematoma, as well as other signs of non-accidental trauma like retinal hemorrhages on fundoscopy.

Okay, because the source of the bleeding is venous, the hematoma usually grows slower than epidural hematomas caused by arterial bleeding.

Also, since the blood isn’t restricted by sutures, it can be distributed over a larger area, so pressure doesn’t build up as quickly, unless the hemorrhage is very large.

Because of these factors, subdural hematomas tend to be more insidious. Now, as the blood accumulates, intracranial pressure increases causing symptoms like worsening headaches, nausea or vomiting, visual problems, slurred speech, dizziness, unsteady gait, confusion, cognitive impairment, seizures, and hemiparesis that can be ipsilateral or contralateral.

A subdural hematoma is considered acute if symptoms develop within 2 days of a head trauma, subacute if they develop between