Context: Mortality and morbidity can be reduced if aneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH) is treated urgently.
Objective: To determine the association of initial misdiagnosis and outcome after SAH.
Design, setting, and participants: Inception cohort of 482 SAH patients admitted to a tertiary care urban hospital between August 1996 and August 2001.
Main outcome measures: Misdiagnosis was defined as failure to correctly diagnose SAH at a patient's initial contact with a medical professional. Functional outcome was assessed at 3 and 12 months with the modified Rankin Scale; quality of life (QOL), with the Sickness Impact Profile.
Results: Fifty-six patients (12%) were initially misdiagnosed, including 42 of 221 (19%) of those with normal mental status at first contact. Migraine or tension headache (36%) was the most common incorrect diagnosis, and failure to obtain a computed tomography (CT) scan was the most common diagnostic error (73%). Neurologic complications occurred in 22 patients (39%) before they were correctly diagnosed, including 12 patients (21%) who experienced rebleeding. Normal mental status, small SAH volume, and right-sided aneurysm location were independently associated with misdiagnosis. Among patients with normal mental status at first contact, misdiagnosis was associated with worse QOL at 3 months and an increased risk of death or severe disability at 12 months.
Conclusions: In this study, misdiagnosis of SAH occurred in 12% of patients and was associated with a smaller hemorrhage and normal mental status. Among individuals who initially present in good condition, misdiagnosis is associated with increased mortality and morbidity. A low threshold for CT scanning of patients with mild symptoms that are suggestive of SAH may reduce the frequency of misdiagnosis.