management of intracranial hemorrhageRobust and comprehensive studies now support specific management guidelines for patients presenting with different intracranial hemorrhages (ICH). From the Emergency Department perspective, the primary dilemmas involve specific blood pressure goals and whether seizure prophylaxis with phenytoin is necessary. The Brain Trauma Foundation provides an excellent summary of the current guidelines.1

Summary Table on the Management of Intracranial Hemorrhages

* Age-dependent blood pressure goal: SBP ≥ 100 mmHg (age 50-69 years) and SBP ≥ 110 mmHg (age >70 years)

Abbreviations: Extraventricular drain (EVD), Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS), intracranial hemorrhage (ICH), subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH)

Primary Intracranial Hemorrhages

Primary ICHs include both intraventricular and intraparenchymal bleeds. The majority are due to severe hypertension and are localized to the cerebellum, brainstem, and midbrain. Other etiologies include aneurysm and tumor. Up to 30% of these cases expand within the first 3 hours of onset, which is why treatment guidelines include a systolic blood pressure (SBP) goal of <140-180 mmHg.2,3 This is often achieved with an IV infusion of a vasodilator, such as nicardipine or nitroprusside. In patients with primary ICH, seizure prophylaxis and platelet transfusion may lead to worse outcomes.4–6  Indications for an external ventricular drain (EVD) include any of the following:7

  • Confirmed ICH with a GCS < 9
  • Transtentorial herniation
  • Significant intraventricular hemorrhage with hydrocephalus

Traumatic Brain Injury including Epidural, Subdural, and Subarachnoid Hemorrhages

In contrast to primary ICHs, phenytoin has been shown to be of benefit for acute traumatic brain injury (TBI). It decreases the incidence of early (≤ 7 days) post-traumatic seizures. Phenytoin is the preferred agent for a patient with a traumatic ICH and a GCS ≤ 10. However, if a patient meets any of the below criteria for seizure prophylaxis but the GCS > 10, then either phenytoin or levetiracetam is acceptable.

Indications for seizure prophylaxis in traumatic ICH 8–13

  • GCS ≤ 10 (phenytoin is the agent of choice)
  • Depressed skull fracture
  • Subdural or epidural hematoma
  • Hemorrhagic contusion
  • Penetrating head trauma
  • Seizure within the first 24 hours 

Blood pressure goals in traumatic ICH 14–24

  • Age 50-69 years: SBP ≥ 100 mmHg
  • Age >70 years: SBP ≥ 110 mmHg 

Surgical intervention for subdural hemorrhages 1

  • Width > 10 mm
  • Midline shift > 5 mm
  • GCS < 9 or GCS change ≥ 2 since injury

Surgical intervention for epidural hemorrhages 1

  • Hemorrhage volume > 30 cm3
  • GCS < 9 with asymmetric pupils

Spontaneous Subarachnoid Hemorrhage (SAH)

Spontaneous, atraumatic SAHs have a 5-10% chance of rebleeding in the first 72 hours. Most are due to a ruptured aneurysm and have a SBP goal < 140-160 mmHg until the aneurysm is secured.2,3These hemorrhages should not receive seizure prophylaxis as no benefit has been shown.25 Early clipping or coiling of the aneurysm is imperative to survival and may require transfer to a high-volume SAH center.

For more great talks, Drs. Mattu, Birnbaumer, Colwell, and many others will be lecturing at the 2018 UCSF High Risk Emergency Medicine Hawaii conference in Maui April 8-12, 2018.

Carney N, Totten A M, O’Reilly C, et al. Guidelines for the Management of Severe Traumatic Brain Injury. Brain Trauma Foundation. Published September 2016. Accessed August 10, 2017.
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William Shyy, MD

William Shyy, MD

Director of Emergency Ultrasound, Parnassus Heights
Co-Director of Emergency Ultrasound Fellowship
Co-Chair High Risk Hawaii Conference
Assistant Clinical Professor
Department of Emergency Medicine
University of California, San Francisco
Debbie Yi Madhok, MD

Debbie Yi Madhok, MD

Assistant Clinical Professor
Department of Emergency Medicine
University of California, San Francisco
Debbie Yi Madhok, MD


ED & ICU. mommy + medicine. #NYMed. #NYER. #missionprotocol. ideas are my own.