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Student Corner: Peritonsillar Abscess

July 7, 2015


Peritonsillar abscess (PTA) is one of the most common head and neck infections that is diagnosed in the emergency department. The common presenting symptoms are a muffled/altered voice, throat pain, fever and odynophagia. A non-contrast CT image of a  particularly severe example of a PTA is shown below.



The next horizontal cut image is below, with red arrows to highlight the abscess.


PTA1 with arrows

One of the more striking aspects of the image is the large degree of airway compression, with the maximum measured diameter of the airway being 2cm. Also, the first image shows that the abscess has two distinct “pockets” that eventually coalesce.


To backtrack, this particular patient initially presented with symptoms of fever, chills, dysphagia, dysphonia and trismus. On examination, there were thin tonsillar exudates, erythema and deviation of the uvula. A diagnosis of peritonsillar abscess was made without imaging and the patient underwent incision and drainage, given antibiotics and discharge. The above images were taken after the patient returned to the ED several days later with continued, worsening symptoms.

The options for imaging of a soft tissue infection of the head and neck include CT and ultrasound. In the ED setting, ultrasound is becoming more and more utilized as the preferred imaging modality. However, this patient received a CT because they failed therapy. CT is superior to ultrasound in differentiation between peritonsillar abscess and other infections of the oral cavity and pharynx. It also allows clinicians to determine the degree of airway compromise. Other indications for CT imaging in suspected peritonsillar abscess include: uncertain diagnosis, obstructed view through physical exam or suspicion of an associated infection such as peritonsillar cellulitis.


Overall, peritonsillar abscess is one of the most common soft tissue infection of the head and neck that is encountered in the emergency department. Most of the time, the diagnosis is clinical. Ultrasound is the preferred imaging modality, but CT is useful in a variety of situations as well.


Powell, J. and Wilson, J.A. (2012), An evidence-based review of peritonsillar abscess. Clinical Otolaryngology, 37: 136–145.
Author:  Jaymin Patel
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Rice bodies…

January 15, 2015


Elderly gentleman came to the ED because he was wandering around the neighborhood.  A bystandard called 911.  He was pleasantly confused, had a mental status consistent with dementia.  The only other pertinent physical exam finding was some erythema, cellulitic appearance to his ankle.  We obtained a tibia and fibula xray looking for gas in the setting of cellulitis and this is what we found:

Rice bodies 2Rice bodies 1


The densities in the soft tissue of his legs are “Rice bodies.”  They are sometimes seen in systemic cysticercosis.  These bodies are calcified dead cysts from the organism Taenia Solium.  Typically this tapeworm is found in pork.  Taenia Solium is rare in the U.S., it is more prevalent in underdeveloped countries especially with a diet that has potential to include raw or undercooked pork.  This should also be on your differential with new onset seizures (1).


Multiple calcifications 1


He also had rice bodies on head CT.  Possibly the cause of his dementia?

Author:  Russell Jones, MD


(1) Parasites – Taeniasis.  Accessed 1/2015.

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Student Corner: How to Read a Head CT

November 24, 2014


Head imaging is both a crucial tool in acute medical care, particularly in the setting of trauma, and a very daunting aspect of learning radiology for students. However, as is the case with many clinical skills, a “systematic approach” goes a long way in helping ease the initial challenge of learning how to read and understand head imaging. For this post, we will focus primarily on head CTs because they are more commonly used in emergency departments due to the fact that they are fast, readily available, and highly informative in trauma.

A head CT presents a few unique challenges. The anatomy is subtle and nuanced. The area has numerous pathological possibilities. The pathologies themselves can change over short time periods. There are different types of fluids and soft tissues. In short, the brain is kind of scary.

But, the best way to get over your fears is to face them. And therefore the best way to look at a head CT is to look at it with a plan. The plan in this case is a (surprise!) mnemonic: Blood Can Be Very Bad” and it is detailed below.


Hemorrhage of blood into the cranial vault is one of the easier things to identify on head CT. Acute hemorrhage is hyperdense (bright) and becomes hypodense (dark) as time goes on. Two of the most commonly encountered types are subdural hematoma and epidural hematoma. Subdural hematomas arise from the bridging veins and are seen as crescent shaped anomalies at the periphery of the cranial vault. Epidural hematomas arise from the middle meningeal artery and are lentiform or lens-shaped because their expansion in limited by suture lines (the dura attaches to the cranium at the suture lines).

Other types of hemorrhage include:

Interparenchymal hemorrhage–can either be traumatic or non-traumatic, occur in the brain matter itself

Interventricular hemorrhage–seen as hyperdense fluid in the ventricles, which are usually black because they are filled with hypodense CSF, can be secondary to other types of hemorrhage or trauma

Subarachnoid hemorrhage–most often due to aneurysm rupture and presents with very acute headache (thunderclap headache), seen as fluid in the subarachnoid spaces.  Subarachnoid is also very common in trauma.

The image below is an example of subdural hemorrhage. The left side of the cranial vault is filled with hyperdense fluid, indicating that this process is acute. Also, note the midline shift that occurs, which is shown by the compression of the ventricles more so on the patient’s left than the right and the movement of brain tissue over to the patient’s right. There is also some extracranial soft tissue swelling on the patient’s left, indicating a possible traumatic process. Extracranial soft tissue swelling can help guide your eyes, so to speak, when looking for pathology.

SDH with midline shift 1


Cisterns are spaces between the pia and subarachnoid meningeal layers that can be filled with CSF. There are numerous cisterns that can be identified on a head CT, but the major ones that you should be familiar with are outlined here on Radiopaedia.

These cisterns can be used to identify increased intracranial pressure or subarachnoid hemorrhage (detailed above). In the setting of increased ICP, these spaces become compressed. In subarachnoid hemorrhage, there is hyperdense blood inside them instead of hypodense CSF.


The brain tissue itself is composed primarily of grey matter and white matter. You can see the difference between these two types of tissue because grey matter is more dense and therefore appears more bright on CT. The gyri and sulci can also be visualized and they should be generally symmetric.

The pathologies that can be identified in the brain parenchyma include:

Abscesses–areas of focal infection from bacteria or fungi, often seen as round areas of ring-enhancing hypodensity with associated edema; midline shift is also a possible finding depending on the size of the lesion.

Tumors–areas of abnormal growth whose particular appearance is variable depending on type and location; midline shift is also a possible finding depending on the size of the lesion; particularly well visualized on contrast-enhanced CT because the blood-brain barrier is disrupted during tumor development and growth, which allows the contrast to leak into the tumor and make it bright.

Infarction–when the blood supply is cut off from brain tissue it causes swelling (which can result in midline shift) and the area becomes hypodense and loses grey-white differentiation.

The CT image below shows a few interesting things. The most obvious one is the multiple hyperdensities seen in the brain matter. These lesions are most likely calcified and can represent anything from inflammatory reactions to infections to tumors. The other finding is that the gyri are thin and the space between them is much more evident than normal, which represents atrophy of the brain due to old age, dementia or both.

Multiple calcifications 1


For the sake of brevity, we will not go over the normal anatomy of the ventricular system. The key radiological aspects of the ventricles in the brain are their size and symmetry. They are filled with hypodense CSF and their size can increase due to hydrocephalus, or increased accumulation of CSF. Hydrocephalus is either communicating (obstruction at the arachnoid granulations which function to resorb the CSF) or non-communicating (obstruction at any point in the ventricular system, usually at the foramina which connect the different ventricles.

Symmetry comes into play when there is a mass lesion on one side of the brain, which can cause compression of one of the lateral ventricles with or without midline shift.

One other aspect to keep in mind is that enlargement of the ventricles can be due to atrophy of the brain parenchyma itself, a condition known as “hydrocephalus ex-vacuo”. Therefore if the ventricles do indeed look large, the brain parenchyma should be examined, paying close attention to signs of atrophy. If the ventricles are enlarged and the brain matter looks compressed and the sulci lose their normal wavy pattern (a process called “effacement”), hydrocephalus is more likely.


Skull fractures are a common finding in head trauma and they can be seen on head CT. Fractures are seen as dark lines in the usually bright bones. They must be distinguished from suture lines, which are seen as symmetrical wavy lines across bones. Basilar skull fractures are harder to identify, as the base of the skull has multiple different areas and bones. Radiopaedia has a great example of this here.

One of the things to keep in mind with fractures of the skull is to follow the fracture lines. Fractures often cross into different bones and, especially when looking at the base of the skull, fracture lines can extend much further than you would expect.

The image below shows a painfully obvious frontal sinus fracture, where the the bone fragments actually protrudes back into the brain tissue itself. This view is slightly different from the other images on this post because it is shown in the “bone window”, which is a type of image processing that highlights the hyperdense bones on a CT. It makes fractures much easier to identify (although I’m not quite sure you needed the special window to see this one).

CT head trauma2




All in all, it is also helpful to keep a few other concepts in mind.

Symmetry is key in identifying pathologies, since irregularities in the tissues or fluids are almost never symmetrical.

Utilize the bone window, even if you don’t suspect a fracture.

Soft tissue swelling on the outside of the cranial cavity itself can help you identify the principal point of impact in traumatic injuries and help you find underlying pathologies.

Always use a systematic approach because otherwise it is pretty easy to miss subtle pathology.

Hope this was helpful to you all, but don’t take this as a complete manual of how to read a head CT. Always corroborate your reads with a more experienced physician and always attempt to read the image on your own before looking at any published interpretations. Ask other people about tips and tricks that they might have. And finally, read as many as you can!

Author: Jaymin Patel


University of Virginia tutorial–

Elsevier Health, How to Read a CT Scan-

Agrawal A. How to read a CT scan of a patient with traumatic brain injury?. NMJ. 2013; 2(1): 02-11.

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WWWTP #20 Answer…

August 7, 2014


This patient presented to the ED with a headache.



This patient has an “Empty delta sign” in the superior sagittal  sinus (blue arrow).  This is indicative of dural venous sinus thrombosis.  There is a clot (dark) among normal blood in the sinus (light).  Remember to look at your sinuses for this rare occurrence.

Image Contributor:  Adriel Watts, MD

Author:  Russell Jones, MD

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WWWTP #20 (What’s Wrong With This Picture?)…

August 4, 2014


This patient presented to the ED with a headache.  What’s Wrong With This Picture?


Image Contributor:  Adriel Watts, MD

Author:  Russell Jones, MD

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CT Hemorrhagic stroke

October 30, 2013


Young patient presented with altered mental status, concern for drug use per EMS.  The patient had some response to naloxone but didn’t return to normal orientation.  On exam there was a subtle left gaze preference with a blood pressure of 280/160 mmHg.  The patient’s head CT non-contrast:


This head CT shows a large hemorrhagic stroke with 8mm of midline shift.  It also showed left uncal herniation on other cuts. 

This is an unfortunate complication to stimulant drug use, most commonly implicated are cocaine and methamphetamines.  One of the many reasons not to do drugs!

Author:  Russell Jones, MD

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Answer to headache/seizure…

July 16, 2013


A couple days ago I presented a middle-aged man with headache and seizure.  What type of imaging is this and what is your differential:

Cystic brain lesion CTT2 MRI cystic lesion

The top image is a non-contrast CT of the head.  The second image is an axial T2-weighted MRI of the head

Both images demonstrate a multi-cystic lesion in the left parietal area.  The MRI demonstrates significant surrounding edema.  A course differential for an intraparenchymal cystic brain lesion includes:

  • Parasitic infection (neurocysticercosis, hyatid cyst from Echinococcus granulosus)
  • Abscess
  • Tuberculosis
  • Neoplasm (craniopharyngioma, glioblastoma, metastases, and more…)
  • Enlarged periventricular spaces (Virchow-Robin spaces)
  • Benign cyst (e.g. neuroglial cyst)

I found a good article in Radiology that covers all types of brain cysts:

Osborn AG, Preece MT.  Intracranial Cysts:  Radiologic-Pathologic Correlation and Imaging Approach.  Radiology 239 (3); 2006.

Unfortunately I don’t have an answer to what this patient had, they are currently awaiting brain biopsy for further evaluation. 

Author:  Russell Jones, MD

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Middle-aged man with headache and seizure…

July 12, 2013


Middle-aged man presents with headache and seizure:

Cystic brain lesion CT

T2 MRI cystic lesion

What type of imaging modalities are demonstrated above and what is your differential?

Answer to follow

Author:  Russell Jones, MD

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New Stroke Tutorial – Evolution from acute to chronic infarction…

May 15, 2013

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Its important for medical students and EM providers to know the radiologic progression and timing of acute ischemic stroke. I came across this blog post from today. Great video review of Acute Ischemic Stroke temporal changes on CT!


New Stroke Tutorial – Evolution from acute to chronic infarction on CT and MRI. VIEW VIDEO:

via our Facebook page

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Rare cause of intracranial hemorrhage…

March 25, 2013

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This gentleman presented to the ED with headache that began several days prior.  He has a history of disseminated coccidioidomycosis:

IVH Coccidio 1

Disseminated Coccidioidomycosis  (DC) is rarely associated with intracerebral hemorrhage.  Not something we will see everyday!

Here is a brief discussion from the American Journal of Neuroradiology about two cases of fatal intracerebral hemorrhage from DC:

Coccidiomycosis ICH

Some highlights:

    • Coccidioides immitus resides in the topsoil of the Southwestern United States.  There are 60-80,000 new cases of coccidioidomycosis every year with disseminated disease occuring in less than 1% of the population.
    • Vasculitis may occur and usually causes ischemic CNS events but can lead to hemorrhage as well
    • Two case reports are discussed.  A 74-year-old male on chemotherapy for Waldenstrom’s macroglobinemia who had blood culture positive Coccidioidomycosis and developed signs of aphasia, confusion.  He ended up having a CT showing large parenchymal and subarachnoid hemorrhage  with a distal left middle cerebral artery aneurysm.  Second case was a 33-year-old male with a history of coccidioidal meningitis diagnosed a year earlier.  He came in with worsening headache and MR showed enlarging prepontine lesion with subtle enhancement.  He died suddenly and on autopsy had subarachnoid hemorrhage.  Numerus necrotic spherules of Coccidioides immitis were found in perivascular spaces and his basilar artery had full-thickness granulomatous changes with necrosis through the vascular wall.

Author:  Russell Jones, M.D.


1.  Erly WK, Labadie E, Williams PL, Lee DM, Carmody RF, Seeger JF.  Disseminated Coccidioidomycocsis Complicated by Vasculitis:  A Cause of Fatal Subarachnoid Hemorrhage in Two Cases.  Am J Neuroradiol 20: 1605-1608, October 1999.

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