Objectives: To investigate the clinical pictures of patients with recurrent thunderclap headaches of unknown etiology and to field-test two relevant International Classification of Headache Disorders, 2nd edition (ICHD-II) criteria, i.e., primary thunderclap headache (Code 4.6) and benign (or reversible) angiopathy of the CNS (Code 6.7.3).
Methods: We prospectively recruited patients presenting with idiopathic recurrent thunderclap headaches from a hospital-based headache clinic. Detailed histories, neurologic examinations, and MRIs and magnetic resonance angiographies (MRAs) were performed in all patients to exclude secondary causes. Patients with cerebral vasoconstriction received serial MRA follow-up.
Results: Fifty-six consecutive patients (51 female/5 male, mean age 49.6 +/- 9.8 [range 22 to 76] years) were enrolled. Segmental vasoconstriction (or benign CNS angiopathy) was found in 22 patients (39%). Thunderclap headache recurred in all patients with a median frequency of 0.7 times per day for a median period of 14 days (range 6 to 86 days). The median duration for each single attack was 3 hours. Most patients (84%) reported at least one trigger. Nimodipine effectively aborted further attacks in 83% of the treated patients. Headache attacks subsided within 3 months. Four patients (7%) developed ischemic complications. Patients with and without vasoconstriction based on MRA images were similar regarding demographics and headache profile. Except for the duration criterion, our patients generally mapped well into the proposed ICHD-II criteria.
Conclusions: This study suggests that the two diagnostic entities proposed by the ICHD-II may present different spectra of the same disorder. The distinct headache profile may help physicians quickly recognize this disabling headache disorder with risk of stroke and provide timely treatment.