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Thunderclap headache
  1. Niraj Mistry1,
  2. Liberty Mathew2,
  3. Allyson Parry3
  1. 1
    Special Registrar, Department of Neurology, Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, Nottingham, UK
  2. 2
    Specialist Registrar, Department of Neurology, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, UK
  3. 3
    Consultant, Department of Neurology, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr N Mistry, Department of Neurology, Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, QMC Campus, Derby Road, Nottingham NG7 2UH, UK; niraj{at}

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A 50-year-old man suddenly developed excruciating neck and occipital pain in his car while stationary at a set of traffic lights. He described it “as though (he) had been hit over the back of the head”. Associated with this he described a “rushing” sensation extending into his head, “numbness and tingling” in his lower jaw, a “tightness” in his throat and, on direct questioning, pulsatile tinnitus in his left ear. He felt nauseated, light headed and was sweating profusely. He had previously been well, without any significant past medical problems, vascular risk factors or history of cervical manipulation. He went to his general practitioner who referred him urgently to the neurologist on call for consideration of subarachnoid haemorrhage (SAH).

On admission, he looked unwell and was clammy and restless. Vital signs were unremarkable. His pupils were miotic but equal, without associated ptosis, and were reactive to light. He had not received opiates or taken any recreational drugs. He was intolerant of fundoscopy suggesting photophobia although he did not admit to this on direct questioning. There was ill defined tenderness over the cervical musculature but no meningism. There were no focal neurological signs.

His admission ECG and brain CT were both normal. He was kept on bed rest under close observation and given intravenous fluids, analgesia and antiemetics.

Question 1

What is the differential diagnosis?


This patient’s general practitioner understandably referred him with suspected SAH, a well recognised cause for sudden severe headache. It is usual practice to swiftly exclude SAH following a first thunderclap onset headache. However, identical headache may be the presenting feature of other serious (and less serious) pathologies, and timely diagnosis and management are important. Our patient’s headache onset was at midday, and lumbar puncture was planned for 12 h later, as is usual practice when looking for CSF …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Patient consent Obtained.

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