Background: The initial diagnosis of intracranial tumor, subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), and subdural hematoma (SDH) can be difficult. This study was undertaken to determine the incidence and presenting signs and symptoms of these disorders in primary care settings, and to determine whether a more aggressive investigative strategy for patients with headache is justifiable.
Methods: Weekly return cards and a chart audit were used to collect data over a 19-month period on every patient who had a new diagnosis of intracranial tumor, SAH, or SDH. Age and sex reports were collected annually.
Results: Twenty-five new tumors, 17 SAHs, and 8 SDHs were reported in 58 practices (a rate of 12/100,000 patients per year). Only one half of these patients had headaches, and no abnormalities were found on neurological examination of many. Diagnosis was delayed in only four patients with headache caused by a brain tumor and in three patients with SAHs. Diagnosis was delayed in two of the latter because of false-negative CT scans.
Conclusions: Although clinical findings and CT scans are not reliable indicators, clinicians are able to detect the majority of these rare conditions without undue delay by selecting a small subset of patients for further investigation. More extensive use of CT scans appears to be a weak strategy to improve detection of these serious disorders, as increased use would lead to increased health care costs and unintended adverse effects, and provide little benefit.