Acute Headache Management for Patients with Subarachnoid Hemorrhage: An International Survey of Health Care Providers

Neurocrit Care. 2022 Aug 2. doi: 10.1007/s12028-022-01571-7. Online ahead of print.


Background: Severe headaches are common after subarachnoid hemorrhage. Guidelines recommend treatment with acetaminophen and opioids, but patient data show that headaches often persist despite multimodal treatment approaches. Considering an overall slim body of data for a common complaint affecting patients with SAH during their intensive care stay, we set out to assess practice patterns in headache management among clinicians who treat patients with SAH.

Methods: We conducted an international cross-sectional study through a 37-question Web-based survey distributed to members of five professional societies relevant to intensive and neurocritical care from November 2021 to January 2022. Responses were characterized through descriptive analyses. Fisher's exact test was used to test associations.

Results: Of 516 respondents, 329 of 497 (66%) were from North America and 121 of 497 (24%) from Europe. Of 435 respondents, 379 (87%) reported headache as a major management concern for patients with SAH. Intensive care teams were primarily responsible for analgesia during hospitalization (249 of 435, 57%), whereas responsibility shifted to neurosurgery at discharge (233 of 501, 47%). Most used medications were acetaminophen (90%), opioids (66%), corticosteroids (28%), and antiseizure medications (28%). Opioids or medication combinations including opioids were most frequently perceived as most effective by 169 of 433 respondents (39%, predominantly intensivists), followed by corticosteroids or combinations with corticosteroids (96 of 433, 22%, predominantly neurologists). Of medications prescribed at discharge, acetaminophen was most common (303 of 381, 80%), followed by opioids (175 of 381, 46%) and antiseizure medications (173 of 381, 45%). Opioids during hospitalization were significantly more prescribed by intensivists, by providers managing higher numbers of patients with SAH, and in Europe. At discharge, opioids were more frequently prescribed in North America. Of 435 respondents, 299 (69%) indicated no change in prescription practice of opioids with the opioid crisis. Additional differences in prescription patterns between continents and providers and while inpatient versus at discharge were found.

Conclusions: Post-SAH headache in the intensive care setting is a major clinical concern. Analgesia heavily relies on opioids both in use and in perception of efficacy, with no reported change in prescription patterns for opioids for most providers despite the significant drawbacks of opioids. Responsibility for analgesia shifts between hospitalization and discharge. International and provider-related differences are evident. Novel treatment strategies and alignment of prescription between providers are urgently needed.

Keywords: Corticosteroids; Headache; Opioids; Prescription; Subarachnoid hemorrhages.