Objective: To test the diagnostic accuracy of the horizontal head impulse test (h-HIT) of vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR) function in distinguishing acute peripheral vestibulopathy (APV) from stroke. Most patients with acute vertigo, nausea/vomiting, and unsteady gait have benign APV (vestibular neuritis or labyrinthitis) as a cause. However, some harbor life-threatening brainstem or cerebellar strokes that mimic APV. A positive h-HIT (abnormal VOR) is said to predict APV.
Methods: Cross-sectional study at an urban, academic hospital over 6 years. Consecutive acute vestibular syndrome patients at high risk for stroke underwent structured examination (including h-HIT), neuroimaging, and admission. Stroke was confirmed by neuroimaging (MRI or CT). APV was diagnosed by normal MRI and appropriate clinical evolution in follow-up.
Results: Forty-three subjects enrolled. One had an equivocal h-HIT. Patients with APV had a positive h-HIT (n = 8/8, 100%). Most patients with stroke had a negative h-HIT (n = 31/34, 91%). However, contrary to conventional wisdom, three patients with stroke (9%) demonstrated a positive h-HIT (1 vestibulocerebellar, 1 pontocerebellar, 1 pontocerebello-labyrinthine stroke).
Conclusions: Patients with lateral pontine and cerebellar strokes can have a positive horizontal head impulse test (h-HIT), so the sign's presence cannot be solely relied upon to identify a benign pathology. Additional clinical features (e.g., directionality of nystagmus, severity of truncal instability, nature of hearing loss) must be considered in patients with acute vestibular syndrome with a positive h-HIT before a central localization can be confidently excluded. Nonetheless, the h-HIT remains a useful bedside test-in acute vestibular syndrome patients, a negative h-HIT (i.e., normal VOR) strongly suggests a central lesion with a pseudo-labyrinthine presentation.