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Student Corner: CT Evaluation of Appendicitis

April 9, 2015


Appendicitis is commonly encountered in the ER and is the leading cause of surgical emergency in the abdomen. The initial evaluation for a presentation that is concerning for appendicitis often includes history taking and exam, supplemented by labs. The Alvarado Score is a 10 point rating scale that is widely used as a tool to help decide whether or not a patient presenting with abdominal pain requires CT imaging (although it’s overall clinical usefulness is controversial). It is outlined here by MDCalc. According to the rule, a score of greater than 4 warrants CT evaluation and greater than 7 requires immediate surgical consult.  CT scan is a highly sensitive and specific tool in diagnosing appendicitis, however it comes with radiation, cost, and sometimes IV contrast risks.  In the pediatric patient population radiation from CT scans are not as desirable as the long-term consequences have theoretical potential to be deleterious (long discussion…for another post maybe!).

The purpose of this article is to go over characteristics of appendicitis that can be seen on a CT scan. The use of contrast is a long debated point of contention amongst the emergency medicine community and the usual practice varies between institutions. Medscape has a great rundown of the issue here, which notes that the use of contrast may be more beneficial in circumstances where appendicitis is a relatively less likely diagnosis because the contrast better helps characterize other possibilities.  Contrast studies are also more helpful in the patient not expected to have a large amount of intraperitoneal fat.

As usual, it is important to understand the local anatomy when analyzing radiological images of the abdomen. The image below is an example of an axial cut, non-contrast abdominal CT of a patient who came in with abdominal pain concerning for appendicitis. Try to identify the following structures: vertebrae, psoas major, IVC, iliac arteries, small bowel, colon and appendix.


And below is a labeled version of the same image:

Appendicitis labeled

Key: Blue arrow = bowel gas, ascending colon; Green arrows = small bowel; Purple arrows = L and R Iliac arteries; Yellow arrow = IVC; Red arrow = inflamed appendix

This image contains several signs that indicate that the appendix is inflamed. They include:

  • Diameter greater than 6mm–this usually implies the the appendix has either been twisted or blocked off from the cecum by an appendicolith, which causes inflammation
  • Periappendiceal fat stranding–seen as distinct lines that radiate out from the appendix in the image above, it is caused by inflammation of the appendix causes fluid accumulation around the wall of the appendix which turns the normally hypodense surrounding fat into a hyperdense area; note that the visceral fat around the appendix on the L side of the image looks much different than the visceral fat on the other side of the image
  • Appendiceal wall thickening–normally the wall of the appendix is thin and barely noticeable, but this image shows that the wall is generally thickened and may even be slightly more hyperdense than expected (more below)

Other signs that aid in the diagnosis of appendicitis include:

  • Appendiceal wall enhancement–the wall of the appendix becomes slightly more hyperdense when you compare it to the wall of any other loop of bowel, which is again a product of inflammation; note that this finding is usually more evident on contrast-enhanced CT
  • Abscess–the colon has a large reservoir of commensal bacteria, which can grow and wall off into an abscess if they are trapped in the appendix
  • Appendicolith–a calcified mass that is hyperdense on CT which can be an obstruction between the cecum and the appendix

Overall, CT has a high degree of sensitivity and specificity when used to evaluate the possibility of appendicitis. The clues outlined above, especially when seen together and as a part of a larger clinical picture that fits with appendicitis, are instrumental in confirming the diagnosis.


Ohle R, O’Reilly F, O’Brien KK, Fahey T, Dimitrov BD. The Alvarado score for predicting acute appendicitis: a systematic review.BMC Med. 2011 Dec 28;9:139. doi: 10.1186/1741-7015-9-139. Review. PubMed PMID: 22204638; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3299622.

Reich B, Zalut T, Weiner SG. An international evaluation of ultrasound vs. computed tomography in the diagnosis of appendicitis.Int J Emerg Med. 2011 Oct 29;4:68. doi: 10.1186/1865-1380-4-68. PubMed PMID: 22035447; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3215954.

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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– 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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Student Corner: Ottawa Ankle Rules

October 14, 2014


The Ottawa Ankle Rules are a set of criteria that are designed to help clinicians identify which patients that present with acute ankle injuries require imaging. The 1992 paper which outlined the criteria (PMID:1554175) consisted of a prospective study of 750 patients who came into the Ottawa Civic and Ottawa General hospitals with acute ankle injuries. The study was designed to record each patient’s particular presentation (area of tenderness, amount of swelling, ecchymoses, etc) and see if any aspect of their presentation correlated with a fracture identified on subsequent imaging (i.e. if a patient has pain over the medial malleolus, how likely are images of that ankle to show a fracture?).

MD Calc has a good summary picture of the criteria here. I’ll summarize it below as well:

A series of ankle x-rays is necessary if:

There is tenderness in the malleolar zone (lateral or medial) AND bony tenderness at the posterior edge of the medial malleolus OR bony tenderness at the posterior edge of the lateral malleolus OR an inability to bear weight immediately and in the ED


There is tenderness in the midfoot zone AND bony tenderness at the base of the 5th metatarsal OR bony tenderness at the navicular OR an inability to bear weight immediately and in the ED

The picture on the link above is probably more helpful to visualize the algorithm. They note that 102 patients out of the 750 cohort had “significant” fractures and these criteria would have led to imaging on all of those cases. Also, they report that this criteria would have led to a 32.3% decrease in the number of radiographs ordered. The algorithm’s sensitivity was 100% and specificity was 40% for identifying fractures that were later confirmed by imaging. In other words, it was touted as a great screening tool since it was highly sensitive in picking up an ankle fracture.

(Note: The original criteria included an age stipulation, so that every patient with ankle pain [but not midfoot pain] over the age of 55 was recommended to get imaging. Additional research and subsequent modification of the algorithm proved that age was actually not a predictive variable. [PMID: 8433468])

Now on to a case:

Homeless male, in his 50’s, with ankle and foot pain after falling 10 feet. Walked into the E.D. with some pain, but had the ability to bear weight. Pt had swelling on exam, but no tenderness at the lateral malleolus, medial malleolus, mid foot or lateral foot.

The question is, do you get imaging on this patient?

Oh, look, it turns out we have criteria for that! And, in short, if you follow the Ottawa Ankle Criteria, the answer is no. The patient can bear weight and has no tenderness at any of the 4 areas that the criteria specifies, therefore according to the algorithm, imaging should not be ordered.

But we have a twist! This patient did indeed get ankle x-rays.

Ottawa Ankle 1

Why did this patient end up getting ankle x-rays despite not having met the Ottowa Ankle criteria?

Dr. Jones plays “devil’s advocate” in arguing against the use of the Ottowa Ankle Rules:

“Despite high negative likelihood ratio’s found on creation and validation of the Ottowa Ankle Rules, ED physicians are still ordering x-rays for most traumatic ankle complaints.  Why?  Because they are immediately available, low cost, and low radiation.  Many of our radiology decision rules pertain to expensive tests that are 10-100 times the amount of radiation (CT head, CT c-spine) and/or may not be readily available.  It is less practical to try and decrease a test that has little downside…such as an ankle radiograph.  

There is usually significant comorbidity associated with many different types of ankle fractures including calcaneal and talar fractures (I mention these because in my experience these are the two fracture patterns that are missed by the Ottowa Ankle Rules despite their reported 100% sensitivity…see the case above).  In our medicolegal environment in the United States, it is very difficult to defend missing an ankle fracture when you have a low cost, low radiation, readily available test at your disposal.  One must take into account that it is nearly impossible to recreate an exam with our current medical documentation.  A radiograph is an objective picture of a non-fractured ankle while a nicely worded exam is not so defendable in the eyes of a layman jury.  You open yourself up to legal problems if you miss a high-morbitidy injury because you used a rule that “decreases medical costs and increases efficiency” (these are the main benefits of the Ottowa Ankle Rules).  Courts are more patient-centered, they don’t care about our waiting room times!

We practice medicine taking into account more than just evidence-based medicine.  Until the “standard of care” we are held up to in court is in line with evidence-based medicine, we will always have to take into account the burden of the medicolegal consequences.  Be careful utilizing any clinical decision rules until they are universally accepted as standard of care among all ED physicians.  

I personally use “shared decision making” with most of my decision rule utilization.  My practice pattern using Ottowa Ankle Rules involves (1) A medical record documenting negative Ottowa Ankle Rules AND (2) a patient that understands the decision not to x-ray AND (3) the patient agrees.  This situation is rare but I will sometimes not x-ray if all the above parameters are met.  This is easier to defend if you happen to miss something by not getting an x-ray.  

The above statement is of course my own opinion and practice pattern.  Please utilize the Ottowa Ankle Rules as you feel fit and I appreciate any comments for and against their use in the ED.    

Russell Jones, MD”

So, there you have it. As is the case with many different areas of medicine, real-life practice varies from guidelines, rules and algorithms (even if they are backed up by multiple research studies) for various different reasons which include, but are not limited to differences in: availability of testing methods, medical setting, hospital policies, patient needs, legal considerations and the physician’s own interpretation of all of the above factors and the medical research/literature.

For students, this means that you’ll have to soon adapt yourself to an environment and way of thinking that takes multiple variables into account when it comes to decision making. Almost every patient is a different shade of grey, not black and white. After all, medicine is both art and science.

But, I digress from the patient. Can you spot the fracture in the above image? Answer below:

Calcaneal fracture with arrow


There is indeed a fracture of the calcaneus right around the inferior edge of the bone. Good thing this patient got imaging, right?

Author: Jaymin Patel


Stiell IG, Greenberg GH, McKnight RD, Nair RC, McDowell I, Worthington JR. A study to develop clinical decision rules for the use of radiography in acute ankle injuries. Ann Emerg Med. 1992 Apr;21(4):384-90. PubMed PMID: 1554175

Stiell IG, Greenberg GH, McKnight RD, Nair RC, McDowell I, Reardon M, Stewart JP, Maloney J. Decision rules for the use of radiography in acute ankle injuries. Refinement and prospective validation. JAMA. 1993 Mar 3;269(9):1127-32. PubMed PMID: 8433468.

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Student Corner: How to Read a Chest X-Ray

August 25, 2014

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In these “Student Corner” pieces, we will go over certain aspects of radiology in EM that are of interest to medical students. Topics will include: common (and interesting) case presentations with accompanying imaging, schematics for how to read different types of imaging in various anatomical locations, discussions on what types of imaging to order and when in the EM setting, and others.

In this inaugural edition of the Student Corner, we’ll take a look at how to tackle reading an anterior-posterior chest x-ray.

For starters, it is important to understand that having a “gameplan” for reading any type of image is key when you first start out trying to decipher radiological images. As a reader and interpreter, you must be systematic in your thought process as you analyze the image in front of you. For chest x-rays, there is a classic schematic: ABCDE. Any medical student will tell you that this is not the only time you will see “ABC…” used as a way to quickly memorize something, but at least it’s easy to remember.

Here’s the image we are going to use and let’s start to dissect it using the mnemonic:

Note: For the purpose of keeping this a short piece, we’ll only focus on the anterior-posterior view only.

CXR UL pna Airway


Legend: Red Arrows–trachea; Blue Arrows–carina; Green arrows–L and R main bronchus

The upper airway, including the trachea, carina and both main bronchi, should all be visible on an AP view. Things to look for include deviation of the trachea away from the midline (there is some deviation to the patient’s right in this image, but this is due to the aortic arch, which passes to the left of the trachea as it passes posteriorly in the mediastinum), obstruction due to aspiration of a foreign object and obscuring of the upper airway due to enlarged mediastinal lymph nodes.

Let’s explore tracheal deviation a bit further. Deviation from the midline is not associated with a defect in the trachea itself, but with a force from either the R or L side of the chest cavity that is pulling or pushing the trachea to one side or the other. For example, introduction of air into one side of the chest cavity will cause that lung to collapse due to the loss of negative intrapleural pressure. The collapsed lung will shrink to the size of a ball and “push” the trachea to the opposite side. You can think of the two lungs like bungee cords that put roughly equal force on the trachea in each direction. If one of the cords snaps or is released from where it is attached to, the cord that is still intact will pull the trachea towards one side, resulting in a deviation that will show up on a CXR.


CXR example Bones

Legend: Numbers–ribs; Red Arrow–clavicle; Blue Arrow–medial border of scapula

A CXR offers a good view to look for rib fractures and clavicle fractures. Clavicular fractures are usually easy to spot, as they usually reveal distinct fracture lines in the middle 3rd of the clavicle. Hairline fractures are less common. Rib fractures are sometimes hard to spot, but each rib should be followed across it’s length to look for fracture lines or step-offs (disruptions in the normal curve of the rib) that could indicate a fracture.

The number of ribs is also important to assess because it is an indirect measurement of the volume of the chest cavity. Hyperinflated lungs are usually the result of obstructive disease where the patient is unable to fully expel the air that is inhaled with every breath they take–this increase in residual volume will build up over time and overinflate the chest cavity. This overinflation will result in a greater-than-normal number of ribs being visible on an AP view. Normally, you should expect to see 8-10 ribs on an upright chest X-ray, depending on whether the patient was instructed to exhale or inhale before the picture was taken.


CXR Cardiac


Legend: Red Dashed Lines–heart borders

This part of the mnemonic involves the heart and surrounding structures. The silhouette of the heart should be identified and the heart borders should be clear. A general rule of thumb is that the heart base should not be wider than 1/2 the total width of the diaphragm. As with a lot of “general rule of thumb”s in medicine, it’s not quite clear whether this has any diagnostic value–for example, if the heart base is indeed 1/2 the width of the diaphragm on CXR, is that really sensitive for cardiomegaly? In any case, it’s something to keep in mind.

The aortic arch and the L pulmonary artery should be visible as two semi-circles above the left atrium. There is a space called the “AP Window” that has the following borders: ascending aortic arch (anterior), descending aortic arch (posterior), L pulmonary artery (inferior), inferior border of aortic arch (superior). The window should be “concave” in the sense that the lateral border should be caved in medially. If it is not, things like mediastinal lymphadenopathy and aorta/pulmonary artery aneurysms are possible.


CXR Diaphragm


Legend: Blue Arrow–gastric air bubble; Red Arrow–costophrenic angle

The diaphragm has 3 major characteristics which you look for on CXR. One is the gastric air bubble, which allows you to identify that the stomach is on the left (as opposed to the right, as in situs inversus). Another is the contour of the diaphragm, which should be a “dome” shape. The right side should be a little higher than the left, thanks to the liver. The third is perhaps the most important: the costophrenic angle. It is the lateral point of attachment for the diaphragm and it should be a sharp, triangle-shaped region at either end. The angle should be acute. If the angle is closer to 90 degrees, then one possible explanation is that the lungs are hyperexpanded (perhaps because of COPD) and pushing the diaphragm down into the abdomen. “blunting” of the angle refers to a radio-opaque marking of the angle that usually is indicative of pleural effusion.

E-Everything Else

Everything else is…everything else. Mostly this means the lung parenchyma itself. For this, asymmetry is key. Compare left and right and see whether there is a difference. More on this particular section of the read later.


Now you should try to read the above x-ray for yourself and type your own version of the read in the comments if you’d like. If not the entire read, then try to identify the pathology in the x-ray and post your answer in the comments. Any questions/comments would also be appreciated.

I’ll post the answer with the “correct” read a bit later on the site.

Author: Jaymin Patel

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