Tag Archives: Head

Student Corner: How to Read a Head CT

November 24, 2014

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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.

Blood

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

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.

Brain

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

Ventricles

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.

Bone

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

 

 

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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

References/Resources:

University of Virginia tutorial– http://www.med-ed.virginia.edu/courses/rad/headct/

Elsevier Health, How to Read a CT Scan- http://www.elsevierhealth.com.au/media/us/samplechapters/9781416028727/Chapter%2069.pdf

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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Gun Shot Wound (GSW) to the head..

November 9, 2012

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Working an overnight the other day and had an interesting GSW present to the ED.  This man was reportedly found in the driver’s seat of a car very near the entrance to the ED parking lot.  GCS was 3, he was intubated shortly after arrival.  He had a large stellate laceration on top of his head just left of midline.  It extended from about where you’d expect the coronal suture line to be, all the way to the poterior-most portion of his occiput (kinda like the bullet skipped off the top of his head and made a big laceration).   His GCS was low because of this:

This is a good example of an acute subdural hematoma from penetrating trauma.  It appears the bullet damaged many of the bridging vessels and acute blood can be seen as a white layering density on the right side of the image.  Remember, acute blood is hyperintense with higher Hounsfield Units (HU) similar to bone.  As it matures it will eventually become darker and darker until it is less intense than brain tissue.

This CT is also a good example of mass effect.  Mass effect is a term used most often in head imaging because of the limited volume of the closed cranial vault.  If an extraneous volume is added to the vault it will compress or displace brain tissue thus causing “mass effect.”  Mass effect is most often caused by blood, tumors, edema, or obstruction of CSF flow (1).  The best way to assess for mass effect is to look at the ventricles, the falx cerebri, and the overall symmetry of the brain.  In the example above one can see the lateral ventricles are displaced to the left of the image (patient’s right side) and the falx bends in that direction because of the subdural blood.  Clinically this causes decreased mentation, signs of herniation, and eventual respiratory arrest due to compression of the respiratory centers of the brainstem.

How do we know this is subdural blood not epidural?  Remember, subdural blood crosses suture lines, epidural blood does not.  Also, subdural blood tends to easily distribute throughout the contours of the brain (causing a convex shaped collection) whereas epidural blood forms a lenticular shaped collection.  Subdural blood is in the space between the dura and the arachnoid while epidural blood is between the skull and the dura.  The other significant difference is that subdural blood is usually venous (sometimes can be arterial) and epidural blood is usually arterial (classically from the middle meningeal artery).  Arterial and venous blood cannot be differentiated on imaging but it may be distinguishable by the timing of the patient’s clinical symptoms after trauma.

The second image has been switched to bone windows and one can appreciate the bony damage from the bullet.

There were two predominant theories about how the patient got to the ED parking lot:  1.  He was shot and had time to drive to the ED while the blood collected in the subdural space.  2.  He was shot in the ED parking lot.  All of us reassured ourselves that is was definitely number 1, not the latter!

References:

1.  Broder JS, Preston R.  “Imaging the Head and Brain.” In: Broder JS.  Diagnostic Imaging for the Emergency Physician.  Elsevier Saunders, 2011.

Author:  Russell Jones, MD

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