Subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH) is bleeding into the subarachnoid space—the area between the arachnoid membrane and the pia mater surrounding the brain. Symptoms may include a severe headache of rapid onset, vomiting, decreased level of consciousness, fever, and sometimes seizures. Neck stiffness or neck pain are also relatively common. In about a quarter of people a small bleed with resolving symptoms occurs within a month of a larger bleed.
SAH may occur as a result of a head injury or spontaneously, usually from a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. Risk factors for spontaneous cases included high blood pressure, smoking, family history, alcoholism, and cocaine use. Generally, the diagnosis can be determined by a CT scan of the head if done within six hours. Occasionally a lumbar puncture is also required. After confirmation further tests are usually performed to determine the underlying cause.
Treatment is by prompt neurosurgery or radiologically guided interventions. Medications such as labetalol may be required to lower the blood pressure until repair can occur. Efforts to treat fevers are also recommended. Nimodipine, a calcium channel blocker, is frequently used to prevent vasospasm.Routine use medications to prevent further seizures is of unclear benefit. Nearly half of people with a SAH due to an underlying aneurysm die within 30 days and about a third who survive have ongoing problems. 10–15 percent die before reaching a hospital.
Spontaneous SAH occurs in about one per 10,000 people per year. Females are more commonly affected than males. While it becomes more common with age, about 50% of people present under 55 years old. It is a form of stroke and comprises about 5 percent of all strokes. Surgery for aneurysms was introduced in the 1930s. Since the 1990s many aneurysms are treated by a less invasive procedure called “coiling”, which is carried out through a large blood vessel.
The classic symptom of subarachnoid hemorrhage is thunderclap headache (a headache described as “like being kicked in the head”, or the “worst ever”, developing over seconds to minutes). This headache often pulsates towards the occiput (the back of the head). About one-third of people have no symptoms apart from the characteristic headache, and about one in ten people who seek medical care with this symptom are later diagnosed with a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Vomiting may be present, and 1 in 14 have seizures. Confusion, decreased level of consciousness or coma may be present, as may neck stiffness and other signs of meningism.
Neck stiffness usually presents six hours after initial onset of SAH. Isolated dilation of a pupil and loss of the pupillary light reflex may reflect brain herniation as a result of rising intracranial pressure (pressure inside the skull). Intraocular hemorrhage (bleeding into the eyeball) may occur in response to the raised pressure: subhyaloid hemorrhage (bleeding under the hyaloid membrane, which envelops the vitreous body of the eye) and vitreous hemorrhage may be visible on fundoscopy. This is known as Terson syndrome (occurring in 3–13 percent of cases) and is more common in more severe SAH.
Oculomotor nerve abnormalities (affected eye looking downward and outward and inability to lift the eyelid on the same side) or palsy (loss of movement) may indicate bleeding from the posterior communicating artery. Seizures are more common if the hemorrhage is from an aneurysm; it is otherwise difficult to predict the site and origin of the hemorrhage from the symptoms. SAH in a person known to have seizures is often diagnostic of a cerebral arteriovenous malformation.
The combination of intracerebral hemorrhage and raised intracranial pressure (if present) leads to a “sympathetic surge”, i.e. over-activation of the sympathetic system. This is thought to occur through two mechanisms, a direct effect on the medulla that leads to activation of the descending sympathetic nervous system and a local release of inflammatory mediators that circulate to the peripheral circulation where they activate the sympathetic system. As a consequence of the sympathetic surge there is a sudden increase in blood pressure; mediated by increased contractility of the ventricle and increased vasoconstriction leading to increased systemic vascular resistance. The consequences of this sympathetic surge can be sudden, severe, and are frequently life-threatening. The high plasma concentrations of adrenaline also may cause cardiac arrhythmias (irregularities in the heart rate and rhythm), electrocardiographic changes (in 27 percent of cases) and cardiac arrest (in 3 percent of cases) may occur rapidly after the onset of hemorrhage. A further consequence of this process is neurogenic pulmonary edema where a process of increased pressure within the pulmonary circulation causes leaking of fluid from the pulmonary capillaries into the air spaces, the alveoli, of the lung.
Subarachnoid hemorrhage may also occur in people who have had a head injury. Symptoms may include headache, decreased level of consciousness and hemiparesis (weakness of one side of the body). SAH is a frequent occurrence in traumatic brain injury, and carries a poor prognosis if it is associated with deterioration in the level of consciousness.
While thunderclap headache is the characteristic symptom of subarachnoid hemorrhage, less than 10% of those with concerning symptoms have SAH on investigations. A number of other causes may need to be considered.
Most cases of SAH are due to trauma such as a blow to the head. Traumatic SAH usually occurs near the site of a skull fracture or intracerebral contusion. It often happens in the setting of other forms of traumatic brain injury. In these cases prognosis is poorer, however, it is unclear if this is a direct result of the SAH or whether the presence of subarachnoid blood is simply an indicator of a more severe head injury.
In 85 percent of spontaneous cases the cause is a cerebral aneurysm—a weakness in the wall of one of the arteries in the brain that becomes enlarged. They tend to be located in the circle of Willis and its branches. While most cases are due to bleeding from small aneurysms, larger aneurysms (which are less common) are more likely to rupture. Aspirin also appears to increase the risk.
In 15–20 percent of cases of spontaneous SAH, no aneurysm is detected on the first angiogram. About half of these are attributed to non-aneurysmal perimesencephalic hemorrhage, in which the blood is limited to the subarachnoid spaces around the midbrain (i.e. mesencephalon). In these, the origin of the blood is uncertain. The remainder are due to other disorders affecting the blood vessels (such as cerebral arteriovenous malformations), disorders of the blood vessels in the spinal cord, and bleeding into various tumors.
Cocaine abuse and sickle cell anemia (usually in children) and, rarely, anticoagulant therapy, problems with blood clotting and pituitary apoplexy can also result in SAH. Dissection of the vertebral artery, usually caused by trauma, can lead to subarachnoid hemorrhage if the dissection involves the part of the vessel inside the skull.
Management involves general measures to stabilize the person while also using specific investigations and treatments. These include the prevention of rebleeding by obliterating the bleeding source, prevention of a phenomenon known as vasospasm, and prevention and treatment of complications.
Stabilizing the person is the first priority. Those with a depressed level of consciousness may need to be intubated and mechanically ventilated. Blood pressure, pulse, respiratory rate, and Glasgow Coma Scale are monitored frequently. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, admission to an intensive care unit may be preferable, especially since 15 percent may have further bleeding soon after admission. Nutrition is an early priority, mouth or nasogastric tube feeding being preferable over parenteral routes. In general, pain control is restricted to less-sedating agents such as codeine, as sedation may impact on the mental status and thus interfere with the ability to monitor the level of consciousness. Deep vein thrombosis is prevented with compression stockings, intermittent pneumatic compression of the calves, or both. A bladder catheter is usually inserted to monitor fluid balance. Benzodiazepines may be administered to help relieve distress. Antiemetic drugs should be given to awake persons.
People with poor clinical grade on admission, acute neurologic deterioration, or progressive enlargement of ventricles on CT scan are, in general, indications for the placement of an external ventricular drain by a neurosurgeon. The external ventricular drain may be inserted at the bedside or in the operating room. In either case, strict aseptic technique must be maintained during insertion. In people with aneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage the EVD is used to remove cerebrospinal fluid, blood, and blood byproducts that increase intracranial pressure and may increase the risk for cerebral vasospasm.