Paroxysmal coughing, subdural and retinal bleeding: a computer modelling approach

Neuropathol Appl Neurobiol. 2006 Dec;32(6):625-34. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2990.2006.00771.x.


Unexplained subdural and retinal haemorrhages in an infant are commonly attributed to 'shaking', the mechanism of which is believed to be traumatic venous rupture. However, the haemorrhagic retinopathy reported as a result of Valsalva manoeuvres and the subdural bleeding that is a rare complication of pertussis together demonstrate that if a sustained rise in intrathoracic pressure is transmitted to cerebral and retinal vessels, it may result in bleeding, similar to that reported in inflicted injury. Such haemorrhages would be expected to occur whenever severe paroxysmal coughing were induced, whatever the cause. This study used a computer modelling approach to investigate feeding accidents as the trigger for bleeding. A dynamic circulatory model of a 3-month-old infant was induced to 'cough', and the response to changes in physiological variables monitored. It showed that coughing causes intracranial pressures to build up exponentially to approach a maximum, proportional to the amount of pressure the musculature of the thorax can produce, as venous return is impeded. They do not have time to become dangerous during individual coughs, as blood quickly returns after the cough is over, reestablishing normal pressures. Paroxysmal coughing, however, does not allow blood to return between coughs, with the result that very high luminal pressures may be generated, sufficient to damage veins. A history of coughing, vomiting or choking is not uncommon in otherwise normal infants with retinal and subdural bleeding. Our findings suggest that paroxysmal coughing could account for such bleeding in some cases.

MeSH terms

  • Brain / blood supply
  • Computer Simulation*
  • Cough / complications*
  • Hematoma, Subdural / etiology*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Intracranial Hypertension / complications*
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Retinal Hemorrhage / etiology*