Reversible Cerebral Vasoconstriction Syndrome Without Typical Thunderclap Headache

Headache. 2016 Apr;56(4):674-87. doi: 10.1111/head.12794. Epub 2016 Mar 26.


Reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RCVS) is characterized by severe headache and diffuse segmental intracranial arterial constriction that resolve within three months. Stroke, which is the major complication of RCVS, can result in persistent neurological disability, and rarely causes death. Diagnosis of RCVS early in the clinical course might improve outcomes. Although recurrent thunderclap headache is the clinical hallmark of RCVS, the absence of such a pattern should not lead to discard the diagnosis. Our literature review shows that RCVS can also manifest as an unspecific headache, such as a single severe headache episode, a mild or a progressive headache. Moreover, a subset of patients with severe RCVS presents without any headache, but frequently with seizures, focal neurological deficits, confusion or coma, in the setting of stroke or posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome. These patients may be aphasic or in comatose state, explaining their inability to give their own medical history. They may have forgotten the headache they had a few days before more dramatic symptoms, or may have a variant of the classical RCVS. By consequence, an RCVS should be suspected in patients with any unusual headache, whether thunderclap or not, and in patients with cryptogenic stroke or convexity subarachnoid hemorrhage, whether the patient also has headache or not. Diagnosis in such cases relies on the demonstration of reversible multifocal intracranial arterial stenosis and the exclusion of other causes.

Keywords: cannabis; endothelial dysfunction; headache; oxidative stress; reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome; stroke.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Headache / etiology*
  • Headache Disorders, Primary
  • Humans
  • Vasospasm, Intracranial / complications
  • Vasospasm, Intracranial / diagnosis*