The role of head computed tomography imaging in the evaluation of postoperative neurologic deficits in cardiac surgery patients

Ann Thorac Surg. 2013 Feb;95(2):548-54. doi: 10.1016/j.athoracsur.2012.11.006. Epub 2012 Dec 6.


Background: Computed tomography (CT) scans of the head without contrast are routinely obtained to evaluate neurologic deficits after cardiac surgery, but their utility is unknown. We evaluated our experience with this imaging modality to determine its value.

Methods: We retrospectively identified cardiac surgery patients with postoperative neurologic deficits occurring during the first week after surgery between January 2000 and December 2012. Stroke was defined by neurologist's determination, whereas a nonfocal deficit (NFD) was defined by the presence of seizure, delirium, or cognitive impairment. We defined early noncontrast head CT as occurring within 7 days of surgery. Outcomes included positive findings on CT, in-hospital mortality, and length of stay. Multivariate logistic regression identified predictors of positive findings on head CT.

Results: Within the population of 11,070 postoperative patients, 451 had early noncontrast head CT scans (4%). Two hundred two (44.7%) were associated with stroke, and 249 (55.2%) were associated with NFD. Among stroke patients, 40 of 202 (20%) showed acute infarction, 17 of 202 (8%) showed subacute infarction, and 5 of 202 (2%) showed hemorrhage. Among NFD patients, 1 of 248 (0.4%) showed acute infarction, 4 of 248 (1.6%) showed subacute infarction, and 1 of 248 (0.4%) showed hemorrhage. There was no difference in in-hospital mortality (stroke, 42 of 201 [21%] versus NFD, 41 of 248 [16%]; p = 0.2) or length of stay (stroke, 24 d versus NFD, 22 d; p = 0.5). On multivariable logistic regression, only focal deficits and aortic procedures predicted a positive finding on CT scan.

Conclusions: This study reviewed the utility of early postoperative noncontrast head CT in cardiac surgery patients. With focal neurologic deficits, this imaging modality was positive for approximately one third of patients, but rarely positive for NFD. Its use in this setting has limited utility.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Brain Diseases / diagnostic imaging*
  • Brain Diseases / etiology*
  • Cardiac Surgical Procedures / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed*