Computed tomographic (CT) scans are performed on virtually all patients with severe head injury at the time of admission. Because of the time involved in obtaining these studies, the evacuation of significant intracranial mass lesions is delayed. To avoid such delays, the authors performed burr-hole exploration for the diagnosis of intracranial hematomas before CT scans were obtained in 100 consecutive head-injured patients with clinical signs of tentorial herniation or upper brain stem dysfunction upon admission to the emergency room. Patients in whom a hematoma was discovered had a craniotomy for evacuation of the clot; those in whom the exploration was negative had a CT brain scan immediately after operation. Burr-hole exploration revealed extracerebral mass lesions in 56 patients. In 38 patients, the exploration was negative, and postoperative CT scanning showed no significant hematoma. Of 6 patients in whom the CT scan demonstrated extraaxial hematomas requiring surgical evacuation, 4 had subdural hematomas that were missed because the exploration was incomplete; 1 patient had an epidural hematoma and 1 had a subdural hematoma contralateral to a craniotomy on the side of a positive initial burr-hole exploration. Our results indicate that the relatively small subgroup of head-injured patients with early tentorial herniation or upper brain stem compression have a high incidence of immediate extraaxial hematomas and a low incidence of intracerebral hematomas. This is particularly true of patients over 30 years of age and those who suffer low speed trauma, such as falls and vehicle-pedestrian accidents.