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Emergency Differential Diagnosis
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Francis Morris
Consultant in Emergency Medicine
Emergency Department
Northern General Hospital
Sheffield, UK
Alan Fletcher
Consultant in Acute Medicine and Emergency Medicine
Emergency Department
Northern General Hospital
Sheffield, UK
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This edition first published 2009, © 2009 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd
BMJ Books is an imprint of BMJ Publishing Group Limited, used under licence by Blackwell Publishing which was acquired
by John Wiley & Sons in February 2007. Blackwell’s publishing programme has been merged with Wiley’s global Scientific,
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
ABC of emergency differential diagnosis / edited by Francis Morris, Alan Fletcher.
p. ; cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4051-7063-5
1. Diagnosis, Differential--Case studies. 2. Medical emergencies--Diagnosis--Case studies. I. Morris, Francis.
II. Fletcher, Alan, 1968- III. Title: Emergency differential diagnosis.
[DNLM: 1. Diagnosis, Differential--Case Reports. 2. Emergency Treatment--Case Reports. WB 141.5 A137 2009]
RC71.5.A23 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Set in 9.25/12 pt Minion by Newgen Imaging Systems (P) Ltd, Chennai, India
Printed & bound in Singapore
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Contributors, vii
Preface, viii
1 Unconsciousness and Coma, 1
Roger Dalton
2 Calf Pain, 5
Francis Morris and Alan Fletcher
3 Chest Pain – Cardiac, 9
Nicki Doddridge
4 High Fever, 13
Rachel Foster
5 Vaginal Bleeding, 18
Sian Ireland and Karen Selby
6 Transient Weakness, 22
Carole Gavin
7 Abdominal Pain – Epigastric, 26
Duncan Drury
8 Acute Headache, 30
Tom Locker
9 Acutely Painful Joint, 34
Rachel Tattersall
10 Chest Pain – Pleuritic, 37
Claire Gardner and Kevin Jones
11 Dizziness, 41
Scott Davison
12 The Intoxicated Patient, 48
Sue Croft
13 The Shocked Patient, 52
Arun Chaudhuri
14 Palpitations, 57
Charles Heatley
15 Low Back Pain, 60
Richard Kendall
16 Acute Confusion, 64
Steve Goodacre
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17 Shortness of Breath, 68
Kevin Jones and Claire Gardner
18 Collapse of Unknown Cause, 72
Peter Lawson
19 Abdominal Pain, 76
Suzanne Mason and Alastair Pickering
Index, 81
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Arun Chaudhuri
Charles Heatley
Consultant Acute Physician, Ninewells Hospital and Medical School,
Dundee, UK
General Practitioner, Birley Health Centre, Sheffield, UK
Sian Ireland
Sue Croft
SpR in Emergency Medicine and Acute Medicine, Medical
Assessment Unit, Northern General Hospital, Sheffield, UK
Consultant in Emergency Medicine, Royal Cornwall Hospital, Truro,
Cornwall, UK
Kevin Jones
Roger Dalton
SpR in Emergency Medicine, Emergency Department,
Northern General Hospital, Sheffield, UK
Consultant Physician, Acute Medical Receiving Unit,
Royal Bolton Hospital, Bolton, UK
Richard Kendall
Scott Davison
General Practitioner, Crystal Peaks Medical Centre,
Peaks Mount, Sheffield, UK
Consultant in Emergency Medicine, Addenbrookes Hospital,
Cambridge, UK
Peter Lawson
Nicki Doddridge
Consultant in Acute Medicine, Emergency Department,
Northern General Hospital, Sheffield, UK
Consultant Physician and Geriatrician, Northern General Hospital,
Sheffield, UK
Tom Locker
Duncan Drury
SpR in General Surgery, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust,
Sheffield, UK
Consultant in Emergency Medicine, Barnsley District General Hospital,
Barnsley, UK
Suzanne Mason
Alan Fletcher
Consultant in Acute Medicine and Emergency Medicine,
Emergency Department, Northern General Hospital, Sheffield, UK
Reader in Emergency Medicine, Northern General Hospital,
Sheffield, UK
Francis Morris
Rachel Foster
SpR in Infectious Diseases, Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield, UK
Consultant in Emergency Medicine, Emergency Department,
Northern General Hospital, Sheffield, UK
Claire Gardner
Alastair Pickering
SpR in Acute Medicine, Emergency Department, Northern General Hospital,
Sheffield, UK
Academic Clinical Lecturer and SpR in Emergency
Medicine, Hull Royal Infirmary, Hull, UK
Carole Gavin
Karen Selby
Consultant in Emergency Medicine, Salford Hospital, Salford, UK
Consultant in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Jessop Hospital for Women,
Sheffield, UK
Steve Goodacre
Professor in Emergency Medicine, Emergency Department,
Northern General Hospital, Sheffield, UK
Rachel Tattersall
Consultant Rheumatologist, Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield, UK
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What makes a good doctor? One of many essential attributes is the
ability to take a good history, appropriately examine, and apply
sound clinical judgement to reach the correct diagnosis.
All 19 chapters in this book have the same format. Each starts
with a patient’s history concerning a common complaint and
asks you, the reader, to generate a differential diagnosis based
upon the information supplied. This is then followed by the
examination findings, thus helping you refine the diagnostic
process so that you are able to arrive at a single principal working
diagnosis. The emergency management of this condition is then
Our hope is that working through these cases will be enjoyable,
and that you will refine your diagnostic skills.
Francis Morris
Alan Fletcher
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Unconsciousness and Coma
Roger Dalton
Table 1.1 The Glasgow Coma Score.
A 57-year-old man is found in an unconscious state at home. He
was in bed when his wife left at 7.00 a.m. that morning to go to
work. On her return home at 3.45 p.m., he was still in the same
position in bed, unrousable, incontinent of urine, and the cup of
tea she had left for him was untouched. He has been unwell
recently, and prescribed a course of antibiotics and co-codamol
from his General Practitioner for a discharging ear infection. He
suffers from hypertension, type 2 diabetes mellitus and longstanding depression. His medication list shows that he has been
prescribed gliclazide 80 mg twice daily, atenolol 25 mg once daily,
ramipril 5 mg once daily and amitriptyline 25 mg once daily.
He has no known allergies. His wife informs you that he has
had bad headaches recently, but that no-one else at home has
been unwell.
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
This man is in a coma, which is defined as ‘unrousable unresponsiveness’. Using the objective clinical assessment tool, the Glasgow
Coma Score (see Table 1.1), coma is defined as a score of 8 or less.
Those patients with a score between 14 and 9 are defined as having
altered consciousness and those with a top score of 15 are normal,
alert and orientated. When considering a differential diagnosis for
the cause of a patient’s unresponsiveness it is important to consider
those conditions that are easily reversible first.
The patient is a known diabetic. Hypoglycaemia or, less commonly,
hyperglycaemia can result in altered consciousness and must be
actively diagnosed and promptly treated. A simple bedside glucose test will identify abnormalities in blood glucose levels and will
guide appropriate therapy.
It is essential that any patient with confusion, altered consciousness, coma or focal neurological signs has their blood glucose estimated as part of the initial assessment. Neurological signs resulting
from hypoglycaemia usually resolve quickly with treatment, though
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
Eye opening
To speech
To pain
Verbal response
Disorientated speech
Inappropriate words
Incomprehensible sounds
Motor response
Obeys commands
Localises painful stimuli
Withdrawal from pain
Flexion to pain
Extension to pain
Box 1.1 Drugs that can affect conscious level
Tricyclic antidepressants
Street drugs, e.g. gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB)
the failure to recognise and treat hypoglycaemia promptly may lead
to permanent neurological damage.
Drugs and alcohol
Excess alcohol with or without other prescription or recreational
drugs is the commonest cause of altered consciousness and not
quickly reversible. Of all the drugs that affect a patient’s consciousness (see Box 1.1) opiates are the only group that are readily treatable. Opiate excess leads to coma, and life-threatening respiratory
depression, but thankfully can be quickly and effectively treated by
the antagonist naloxone. The signs of opiate poisoning are seen in
Box 1.2. Naloxone should be administered to any patient with any
signs compatible with opiate poisoning.
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ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Box 1.2 Signs of opiate ingestion
Depressed conscious level
Depressed respiratory rate
Pin point pupils
Needlestick trackmarks
Box 1.3 Signs of tricyclic anti-depressant overdose
Dry skin and mouth
Urinary retention
Jerky limb movements
Divergent squint
Altered level of consciousness
Opiate excess should be considered in this man who has had
access to the simple analgesic co-codamol, which is a combination
of paracetamol and the opiate codeine.
Likewise amitriptyline overdose, a common cause of coma,
should be considered in the light of his depression and access to the
medication. The clinical signs of tricyclic anti-depressant overdose
are found in Box 1.3.
Figure 1.1 Intracranial haemorrhage. CT scan of a patient with an
extensive intra-parenchymal haemorrhage. Intra-ventricular blood is seen,
as is dilatation of the temporal horns of the lateral ventricles suggesting
Intracranial haemorrhage
Vascular causes of coma are common. This man is known to have
hypertension, which puts him at risk of intracranial haemorrhage.
The cardinal features of an intracranial haemorrhage are sudden
onset of headache, altered consciousness and focal neurological
signs. Spontaneous intracranial haemorrhage usually occurs either
into the subarachnoid space or into the ventricles and brain substance itself giving rise to either subarachnoid haemorrhage or
intra-parenchymal haemorrhage respectively (see Figure 1.1).
Strokes due to cerebral infarction usually present differently to
intracranial haemorrhages. The most important difference is that in
most strokes consciousness is not impaired. There may be difficulty
communicating with the patient, due to expressive or receptive dysphasia, but conscious level itself is not often altered. In brainstem
infarctions, which can produce ‘locked in syndromes’ patients are
aware of their surroundings, but unable to respond or communicate, so the patient can appear to be comatose.
Infection can lead to coma, either systemic infection as in a
septicaemic illness, or intracranial infection such as meningitis or
encephalitis. Patients with meningitis or encephalitis may present
in coma especially if there is raised intracranial pressure.
There will often be a preceding phase characterised by symptoms
suggestive of meningeal irritation (stiff neck, headache, photophobia), the signs of raised intracranial pressure (irritability, altered
level of consciousness, vomiting, fits) and infection (fever, lethargy).
If Neisseria meningitidis is the causative organism, the characteristic petechial/purpural rash is seen in approximately 50% of patients
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Figure 1.2 Purpuric rash.
(see Figure 1.2); other organisms can cause less well-defined rashes.
Other causative organisms can be seen in Table 1.2.
Prompt recognition of the possibility of meningitis is vital, as if
left untreated, it has a mortality rate approaching 100%.
This man has a discharging ear infection which could potentially
be the source of intracranial infection.
5/13/2009 10:00:54 AM
Unconsciousness and Coma
Table 1.2 Causes of meningitis/encephalitis.
Neisseria meningitidis, Streptococcus pneumoniae, listeria
(elderly), Haemophilus influenzae, TB
Herpes simplex, Coxsackie, mumps, echovirus, HIV
Cryptococcus neoformans
Drugs (trimethoprim/NSAIDs), sarcoidosis, systemic lupus
Box 1.4 Atypical clinical signs in coma
Intact blink response
Actively holding eyes closed
Actively closing eyes when opened
Presence of Bell’s phenomenon (eyes rolled up inside head when
observer opens eyes)
Box 1.5 Metabolic causes of coma
Hypercapnea (CO2 narcosis)
Hypo- or hypercalcaemia
Hypo- or hypernatraemia
Hepatic encephalopathy
Addison’s disease
Cushing’s disease
Hypo- or hyperthyroidism
Typically, space-occupying lesions are responsible for slowly
progressive symptoms, though it is possible for acute coma to be
caused by haemorrhage into a space-occupying lesion.
Carbon monoxide poisoning
Post-ictal state
Following a generalised seizure, patients can be unresponsive as part
of a post-ictal state. Typically, though the patient may be in coma
immediately following the fit, their conscious level quickly improves
within 30–60 minutes, by which time they are usually able to provide
you with a history of events. Evidence of urinary incontinence and
tongue biting with bleeding in or around the mouth supports the
diagnosis but is not diagnostic. The duration of this man’s unconscious state would be out of keeping with a post-ictal state.
However, on examination it would be important to look for
evidence of ongoing seizure activity (e.g. hypertonicity) as status
epilepticus may be a possibility.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is a relatively uncommon cause of
coma. Smoke inhalation, fumes from poorly maintained gas appliances and car exhaust fumes are all potential causes. If the poisoning is chronic, prodromal symptoms such as fatigue and headaches
may provide clues as to the cause. It is common for members of the
same household to be affected, and the lack of symptoms in his wife
suggests that this is not the diagnosis.
Psychogenic coma
Psychogenic coma is uncommon and accounts for less than 2% of
all cases of coma and is strictly a diagnosis of exclusion. Accordingly,
the patient must be assessed thoroughly to check for other causes
of altered consciousness as conditions such as hydrocephalus and
vertebral artery dissection have on occasions been initially labelled
as psychogenic. There are a number of clinical features that may
suggest that the patient is physiologically awake (see Box 1.4) but
none could be said to be diagnostic.
On further questioning, the patient’s wife confirmed that he
hadn’t taken any of the prescribed co-codamol or amitriptyline
tablets as the bottles remained full, and that he didn’t drink
They had a domestic carbon monoxide monitor, which had been
checked recently and was in perfect working order.
Causes of coma not suggested by the history
Head injury is one of the commonest causes of coma but this man’s
history is not suggestive of an intracranial injury.
Structural causes
Structural causes of coma are relatively rare. Intracerebral spaceoccupying lesions cause coma, either as a result of their mass effect
on the brain, or because of the anatomical position of the lesion.
By far the most common cause of cerebral space-occupying
lesions are tumours, either primary or secondary. Other causes
include cerebral abscess, cysts (e.g. cysticercosis, third ventricular
colloid cysts) and granulomas (e.g. sarcoidosis, TB).
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Metabolic causes
Other metabolic causes not mentioned above are listed in Box 1.5.
Case history revisited
Examination of the patient showed him to have a Glasgow Coma
Score (GCS) of 7 (E2, M4, V1).
The patient had a clear airway and was breathing with a respiratory rate of 18 per minute.
There was no smell of alcohol or ketones on his breath.
Chest auscultation revealed no abnormality. His heart rate was
94 beats/minute and regular, blood pressure was 180/105 mmHg
and his temperature was 36.2oC. His bedside blood glucose level
was 6.2 mmol/l.
There were no external signs of head injury, and examination of
the thorax, abdomen and limbs was unremarkable. There was no
visible rash.
His pupils were equally sized and reactive to light. His limbs were
generally hypotonic with brisk reflexes on his right upper and lower
limbs, with an upgoing right plantar reflex.
5/13/2009 10:01:01 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principal working diagnosis?
Principle working diagnosis – Intracerebral
The clinical information given allows us to discount a number of
the differential diagnoses.
The patient is not hypoglycaemic and there is no suggestion of opiate or amitriptyline ingestion. He is afebrile and has
no evidence of meningococcal disease. The patient’s history
of hypertension and the acute nature of the onset of coma
strongly suggest a vascular cause such as an intracerebral
This man is in coma and requires an urgent CT scan. As his
GCS is 7, his airway is vulnerable and he requires a definitive
airway. Intubation and ventilation is required. No specific
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management is required to control his blood pressure at
this time.
A CT scan of the patient’s brain showed a large intracerebral
haemorrhage, with intraventricular blood and hydrocephalus.
Urgent neurosurgical advice was sought but unfortunately this
man died during an operation to drain his hydrocephalus.
Further reading
Axford J, O’Callaghan C. Medicine, Second Edition. Blackwell Science, Oxford,
Patten JP. Neurological Differential Diagnosis. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 1995.
Ramrakha P, Moore K. Oxford Handbook of Acute Medicine, Second Edition.
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004.
Tintinalli J, Kelen G, Stapczynski S, et al. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive
Study Guide, Sixth Edition. McGraw-Hill, New York, 2003.
Wyatt JP, Illingworth R, Graham C, et al. Oxford Handbook of Emergency
Medicine, Third Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
5/13/2009 10:01:01 AM
Calf Pain
Francis Morris and Alan Fletcher
A 43-year-old man presents with pain and swelling in his right calf.
Three days before he was aware of discomfort and cramping in his
right calf associated with some swelling. He took paracetamol but
the symptoms continued. On the day of presentation he had
slipped on getting out of the shower and developed a pulling
sensation in the back of his leg associated with a sudden increase
in the amount of pain and consequently he is now walking with a
limp. In the past he suffered with ulcerative colitis which was
controlled with Salazopyrin and had recently received a course of
ciprofloxacin for epididymo-orchitis. He is a smoker but there is no
other relevant past medical history. He denies any other symptoms.
Gastrocnemius muscle:
Medial head
Lateral head
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
There are a variety of causes of calf pain which can be divided into
those of sudden onset, which frequently have a musculoskeletal
origin, and those of an insidious onset, which include important
conditions such as deep venous thrombosis (DVT).
Calf muscle injury
One of the commonest problems giving rise to sudden acute
pain in the calf is a tear of the medial head of the gastrocnemius
muscle (Figure 2.1). This injury is commoner in men and typically
occurs in those individuals who are unaccustomed to regular exercise.
The injury occurs when the leg is loaded and the person is involved
in activities such as running up an incline, jumping or suddenly
pushing off as in running for a bus. An audible pop or tearing
sensation may be felt in the upper medial aspect of the calf causing
the individual to occasionally complain of being struck by a flying
object or hit from behind. The patient’s calf suddenly becomes
painful and full weight bearing is difficult.
Clinical examination reveals localised tenderness to the medial
head of the gastrocnemius muscle which may be associated with
some swelling. Bruising and discolouration tends to appear days
later when it has a tendency to track down the leg to the ankle.
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
Medial malleolus
Lateral malleolus
Figure 2.1 Anatomical drawing of the gastrocnemius and plantaris muscle.
Plantaris rupture
The plantaris muscle is a vestigial structure that comprises a small
muscular belly and a long tendon. Rupture of this structure will also
occur suddenly and painfully but unlike the much commoner gastrocnemius injury the clinical findings are much less specific, hence
this is not a diagnosis that will be obvious on clinical examination.
Injury to the plantaris muscle is the diagnosis that one is usually
left with when all other common causes of sudden calf pain have
been excluded.
Ruptured Baker’s cyst
A Baker’s cyst is an outpouching of the synovium of the knee
joint which occurs in people with an inflammatory or degenerative arthritis (see Figure 2.2). Patients may be aware that they have
developed a Baker’s cyst because of a fullness in the popliteal fossa
behind their knee. When the fluids leaks out of the synovium into
the calf muscle it excites an intense inflammatory response giving
rise to the sudden onset of pain and swelling.
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ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Tendon intact
Popliteal space
Baker's cyst
Foot plantar
Figure 2.2 Diagram showing a Baker’s cyst.
In a typical case the patient will complain of recurrent pain,
stiffness and swelling of the knee joint and occasionally they notice
how their knee symptoms and signs improve at about the same
time as the pain and swelling develops in their calf. The moment
of rupture may be felt as a sharp pain behind the knee when the
patient is engaged in activities that will increase the pressure within
the joint, e.g. squatting, or alternatively the leak may occur more
insidiously giving rise to pain and swelling in the calf which may
resemble the onset of a DVT.
In some patients there is a joint effusion and/or an obvious fullness behind the knee joint apparent on palpation. However, the
absence of such clinical findings does not exclude the diagnosis.
Achilles tendon rupture
Partial or complete rupture of the Achilles tendon occurs suddenly. As with a calf muscle injury the patient may believe they
have been struck from behind by an object or kicked. The usual
site of the Achilles tendon rupture, however, is approximately 6 cm
above its insertion into the heel bone and therefore the site of pain
and discomfort is quite distinct from that of a calf muscle injury
(see Figure 2.3).
In a typical case there will be a palpable gap in the Achilles tendon
associated with swelling at the site of rupture. Rupture is confirmed
clinically by performing the calf squeeze test (see Figure 2.4). When
positive, squeezing the calf fails to produce plantar flexion movement at the ankle when compared with the normal side.
The patient will still have the ability to actively plantar flex their
foot though due to the presence of other intact tendons such as
tibialis posterior and flexor hallucis longus, though plantar flexion
will be weak. The patient also retains the ability to stand on tiptoes
when standing on both feet but they cannot stand on tiptoes using
the affected foot alone.
Rupture of
Achilles tendon
Figure 2.3 Anatomical drawing of the rupture of the Achilles tendon.
Fletcher_C002.indd 6
Tendon ruptured
No or
Figure 2.4 The calf squeeze test.
Figure 2.5 A deep venous thrombosis.
Deep venous thrombosis
The signs and symptoms of DVT are related to the degree of
obstruction and inflammation of the veins involved. In contrast
to calf muscle injuries, the onset is usually insidious with aching,
tenderness and swelling developing over a number of days.
Many of the signs are non specific, but oedema of the affected leg
is one of the most constant findings (see Figure 2.5).
Redness and warmth may be present over the area of thrombosis and as a result the differential diagnosis of a DVT frequently
involves cellulitis. DVT is slightly more common in men and
individuals over the age of 40.
Factors that promote venous stasis, vessel wall injury or are
pro-thrombotic (Virchow’s triad) render individuals susceptible to
5/13/2009 10:02:57 AM
Calf Pain
the development of DVT. Examples include prolonged immobility,
major surgery, thrombophilias.
Other causes of calf pain not suggested by the
Referred pain from the back
Patients with radicular symptoms associated with degenerative back
problems may present with what appears to be isolated calf pain.
The lack of localised signs apart from tenderness or hypersensitivity, a history of back problems and the findings that the symptoms
are exacerbated by straight leg raising would all point to a diagnosis
of referred pain from the back.
Discrete tenderness and thread like lumpiness overlying the superficial vein may give rise to the complaint of calf pain. Remember,
however, that superficial thrombophlebitis in the absence of
varicose veins is a risk factor for DVT.
Clinical examination reveals no obvious limitation of movement of
his right knee joint, pain, tenderness or effusion. His temperature
is normal.
There is no localised tenderness over the medial head of his gastrocnemius muscle nor any bruising to his calf. The calf squeeze
test reveals that his Achilles tendon function is intact and there is
no neurovascular deficit.
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principal working diagnosis?
Principal working diagnosis – DVT
It is well recognised that chronic arterial insufficiency gives rise
to calf pain on exertion, which is relieved by rest. Acute arterial
insufficiency will result in rest pain, though these symptoms
are rarely isolated to the calf. Hence, acute vascular insufficiency does not usually form part of the differential diagnosis of
calf pain.
Given the non-specific way in which a DVT may present and the
fact that a number of conditions may give rise to similar symptoms,
the investigation of a patient with a possible DVT is informed by
assessing their pre-test probability.
The Wells clinical prediction guide (see Table 2.1) or a modification of the same is frequently used. This guide uses a number of
risk factors and clinical findings to allow the patient to be graded
as high or low probability for DVT. It is important when scoring
a patient using such a guide that appropriate attention is given to
any alternative diagnosis that is as, or more, likely than a DVT. It
is important that this category is assessed correctly to prevent the
patient being given a falsely high pre-test probability resulting in
them undergoing unnecessary investigations.
It is now also common practice to measure the D-dimer levels
in any individuals at low risk of DVT. D-dimer fragments are present in fresh clots and in fibrin degradation products and therefore
elevated in many conditions where blood clots develop, including
DVT. The combination of the pre-test probability and the D-dimer
result help inform the investigation strategy.
Table 2.1 Pre-test probability assessment for DVT.
Popliteal aneurysm
A contained haemorrhage from a popliteal aneurysm into the calf
muscle may give rise to the sudden onset of pain and discomfort
which may present in a similar fashion to a calf muscle tear or a
ruptured Baker’s cyst. This is a rare complication of aneurysmal
disease. The diagnosis should be considered if any patient presents
with the sudden onset of calf pain in association with a popliteal
Arterial insufficiency
Cellulitis gives rise to red, tender, painful, swollen lower legs but as
with arterial insufficiency the condition is rarely isolated to the calf.
Given the non-specific way in which DVT can present, cellulitis is
frequently considered in the differential diagnosis of this condition
but not in the differential diagnosis of isolated calf pain.
Case history revisited
Revisiting the presenting symptoms, the diagnosis is not immediately obvious. This man’s history is not entirely compatible with a
calf muscle injury as three days prior to the sudden pain he complained of swelling and tenderness in his calf. The insidious onset
of pain and swelling in his calf suggests that leaking from a Baker’s
cyst or DVT should be considered.
He has a minor risk factor in ulcerative colitis but no major risk
factors for a DVT though the fact that he is taking ciprofloxacin
(which is associated with spontaneous rupture of the Achilles
tendon) is worth noting.
Fletcher_C002.indd 7
Clinical features
Malignancy (treatment ongoing in last 6 months or palliative)
Paralysis, paresis, recent plaster immobilisation lower limb
Recently bedridden >3 days or major surgery within 12 weeks
Entire leg swollen
Localised tenderness along distribution of deep venous system
Calf diameter more than 3 cm greater than asymptomatic leg
Pitting oedema (confined to symptomatic leg)
Colateral superficial veins (non-varicose)
Previous documented DVT
Alternative diagnosis at least as likely as that of DVT
Pre-Test probability of DVT
Unlikely: 1 or less
Likely: 2 or more
5/13/2009 10:02:59 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
DVT likely (Score ≥ 2)
DVT unlikely (Score ≤1)
with advice
Ultrasound scan
Ultrasound scan
Ultrasound scan
with advice
Discharge with advice
Rescan in 5–7 days
Consider further
imaging/senior review
Figure 2.6 Algorithm for investigation of suspected deep vein thrombosis: Application of clinical model to pre-test probability.
The commonest form of imaging used to identify a DVT is
duplex ultrasound which has a sensitivity for proximal vein DVT of
97% and a negative predictive value of 95%. Impedance plethysmography is an alternative non-invasive technique used in some centres. Venography, which is invasive, is not often performed today,
and now is only considered in high risk patients when ultrasound
examinations have been inconclusive. An alternative to venography
is MRI angiography which is expensive, though becoming increasingly available. An investigation strategy is seen in Figure 2.6.
Ultrasound is very helpful in diagnosing other causes of calf
pain, especially Baker’s cyst and Achilles tendon rupture.
Blood tests are rarely helpful in assisting diagnosis, though a
raised white cell count points towards cellulitis.
system. There was no other obvious diagnosis and therefore the
minus two category did not apply in this case. In addition his
D-dimer test was elevated.
A duplex ultrasound scan revealed a non-occlusive blood clot in
the superficial femoral vein of his thigh.
Further reading
Donnelly R, London NJM. ABC of Arterial and Venous Disease. Blackwell
Science, Oxford, 2000.
Tintinalli J, Kelen G, Stapczynski S, et al. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive
Study Guide, Sixth Edition. McGraw-Hill, New York, 2003.
Wardrope J, English B. Musculo-Skeletal Problems in Emergency Medicine.
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998.
Wyatt JP, Illingworth R, Graham C, et al. Oxford Handbook of Emergency
Medicine, Third Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
This man was assessed as having a pre-test probability of +2 as his
calf was swollen and there was tenderness over the deep venous
Fletcher_C002.indd 8
5/13/2009 10:03:00 AM
Chest Pain – Cardiac
Nicki Doddridge
A 47-year-old man presents with chest pain. He has noticed the
pain over the past few weeks with strenuous activity. He describes
an ache in the centre of his chest associated with mild dyspnoea.
The patient first noticed the pain whilst climbing a ladder at work.
Since then it has occurred on several occasions whilst walking up
the hill to his local newsagents. This morning he was playing
football with his son when it began. It was a little more severe
than usual and this time he had an ache in his left shoulder.
Usually the pain resolves quickly when he stops what he is doing.
This morning it lasted about 30 minutes. He works as a labourer
on a building site and this week has been moving heavy
flagstones. He stopped smoking 2 years ago after his father died
of a heart attack. He drinks 40 units of alcohol per week and has
a 15 pack-year smoking history. His GP recently started him on
lansoprazole 15 mg after he complained of a burning sensation in
his chest. The pain he was prescribed this for was a little different.
It was more of a burning sensation in bed at night. This has
subsided somewhat since he started treatment. He still gets
occasional symptoms, however, after overindulging in rich foods.
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
The differential diagnosis of chest pain is very wide, with many possible causes (see Box 3.1). With careful history taking it is usually
possible to narrow the diagnosis, and in this case three differential
diagnoses are prominent.
Angina pectoris
Chest pain deservedly receives so much attention and importance
because ischaemic heart disease (IHD) often manifests with this
symptom. Unfortunately, classical symptoms of central, crushing
chest pain that radiates to the neck, jaw and left arm are not always
obvious. Patients often describe a ‘sharp’ pain, and pain may be felt
in the epigastrium or left arm only. Frustratingly, some patients with
clear evidence of IHD have no symptoms whatsoever. Typically, the
diagnosis of angina is made when pain develops on exertion, and
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
Box 3.1 Causes of chest pain
• Angina
• Acute coronary syndrome
• Myocarditis/pericarditis
• Arrhythmia
• Mitral valve prolapse
• Pneumothorax
• Pneumonia
• Pulmonary embolism
• Neoplasia
• Hyperventilation
• Gastro-oesophageal reflux
• Peptic ulcer disease
• Pancreatitis
• Hepatobiliary
• Thoracic aortic dissection
• Herpes zoster infection
Muscular strain
Direct chest wall injury
Rib fracture
Costochondritis/Tietze’s disease
Box 3.2 Risk factors for IHD
Advancing age
Diabetes mellitus
Male sex
Abdominal obesity (high waist–hip ratio)
Family history
settles with rest. Pain that comes on at rest, is rapidly worsening,
or is linked with ECG changes of myocardial damage usually represents an acute coronary syndrome. This used to be divided into
unstable angina and myocardial infarction but it is usual now to
consider all of these conditions as different points in a spectrum of
coronary artery disease.
To help with diagnosis, risk factors for IHD should be sought
(see Box 3.2). The likelihood of IHD increases when three or more
factors are present. History that indicates another cause should
be considered carefully, but the bottom line is that IHD should
be a principal diagnosis to initially exclude in most cases of
undifferentiated chest pain.
Fletcher_C003.indd 9
5/15/2009 12:21:02 Shobha
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Physical examination is usually normal, but becomes important
if signs indicate aortic stenosis or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
(ejection systolic murmur, pulse character abnormalities).
Musculoskeletal chest pain
Musculoskeletal chest pain is common, but because the risks associated with it are small, the diagnosis is usually made when other
more serious causes have been excluded. A history of injury or
unaccustomed exertion is important and costochondritis may be
associated with systemic viral illness symptoms. Examination may
show reproducible chest wall tenderness or pain on movement.
Be aware that pressing on the chest wall usually feels sore in normal people, and one must be very clear about the relationship of
thoracic rotation to the presenting pain symptom.
Gastro-oesophageal reflux
Another common cause of chest pain, this is classically described
as a burning sensation behind the sternum, aggravated by supine
posture. It is linked to high alcohol intake, obesity, and antiinflammatory drugs. Nicotine also increases the incidence of
reflux by causing relaxation of the lower oesophageal sphincter.
Unfortunately, there are many similarities between the pain of
gastro-oesophageal reflux and IHD; acid reflux has even been
shown to cause coronary artery spasm.
Other causes of chest pain not suggested by
the history
Aortic dissection
A rare but very significant diagnosis, this is suggested by a severe
tearing pain, often between the shoulder blades. Patients may have
a difference between the upper limb pulses or blood pressure in the
arms. A chest X-ray may show an abnormal aortic arch or a wide
mediastinum (Figure 3.1).
Lung causes
Lung cancer, pulmonary embolus, pneumonia, and exacerbations
of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can all cause chest pain.
History taking should identify important features reflecting these
diagnoses, and a chest X-ray will usually be abnormal.
Case history revisited
This man describes an aching pain in his chest with exertion, associated with dyspnoea. He has been a smoker and there is a family history of IHD. These are important features pointing towards
angina as the most likely diagnosis.
Musculoskeletal chest pain is possible because he has a manual
job that involves heavy lifting and he may have sustained a muscular
injury. We know that he has recently been lifting heavy flagstones
and need to know if his pain was present before then. Nevertheless,
musculoskeletal pain is a diagnosis of exclusion in this case.
Gastro-oesophageal reflux is possible, but the character of the
pain and relationship to exertion make this less likely.
On examination he is now pain free, his pulse is 90 beats/minute,
blood pressure 140/85 mmHg, respiratory rate 14/minute, and oxygen saturations 97% on air. His heart sounds are normal with no
murmurs. Chest examination is normal. Abdominal examination
reveals centripetal obesity, without organomegaly or tenderness.
The pain cannot be reproduced by either palpation of the chest wall
or movement of the torso.
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principal working diagnosis?
Principal working diagnosis – stable angina
The absence of alternative diagnostic clues on examination, along
with normal observations, points to IHD as the most likely diagnosis. Obesity is an independent risk factor in its own right for IHD,
and in isolation does not make gastro-oesophageal reflux likely.
Figure 3.1 Chest X-ray revealing an abnormal contour of the mediastinum
and an enlarged heart in a patient with aortic dissection.
Fletcher_C003.indd 10
The cornerstone of investigation is the ECG. A 12 lead ECG should
be performed promptly in all patients presenting to the Accident
and Emergency Department with chest pain. The ECG is performed
to assess the presence of detectable myocardial ischaemia or infarction (see Figure 3.2). It is also used to exclude alternative diagnoses
such as an arrhythmia, pericarditis or pulmonary embolism. Most
patients with a pulmonary embolism will have a normal ECG or
sinus tachycardia. The classical changes are of right heart strain,
namely S1, Q3, T3 pattern and right bundle branch block. Atrial
fibrillation may also be seen. The initial ECG may be normal in up
to 20% of patients who go on to receive a diagnosis of IHD.
Blood tests are important for assessing risk and furthering diagnosis for most patients with acute chest pain. Anaemia may unmask
5/15/2009 12:21:03 Shobha
Chest Pain – Cardiac
Figure 3.2 ECGs showing ischaemia.
IHD. Haemoglobin concentration and platelets should be assessed
when commencing antithrombotic therapies. A raised white cell
count may indicate recent infection but may also be raised in
response to acute myocardial infarction. Uraemia may be a cause
of pericarditis, and abnormal liver function tests may lead to an
alternative diagnosis.
Cardiac markers are used to assess myocardial damage. They are
released from skeletal as well as cardiac smooth muscle. Therefore,
they may also be raised due to trauma and skeletal muscle injury.
Elevated levels of troponin indicate myocardial necrosis. Although
originally thought to be very specific for myocardial damage due to
acute coronary syndrome, troponin may also be released from cardiac
myofibrils under other circumstances such as pulmonary oedema,
pulmonary embolism, sepsis, myocarditis, arrhythmia and strenuous
exertion. Troponin is usually measured 12 hours after the onset of
pain but some centres are measuring Troponin at 6 hours along with
change in creatinine isoenzyme and same day exercise stress testing.
Chest X-ray should be performed to exclude other pathology.
If cardiac markers and ECG are normal, then the patient should
proceed to exercise testing as there are no contraindications (see
Box 3.3). This is performed with the patient walking on a treadmill with simultaneous heart rate, blood pressure and 12 lead ECG
monitoring. The speed and gradient of the treadmill increase every
3 minutes on a standard Bruce protocol. The aim is to increase cardiac
work and oxygen demand thus unmasking IHD (see Figure 3.3).
Box 3.3 Contraindications to exercise testing
• Recent acute myocardial infarction (48 hours)
• Ongoing unstable angina
• Arrhythmia causing compromise
• Severe aortic stenosis
• Acute pulmonary embolus
• Acute myocarditis or pericarditis
• Aortic dissection
• Left main stem stenosis
• Moderate aortic stenosis
• Electrolyte abnormalities
• Severe hypertension (SBP >200, DBP >110 mmHg)
• Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
• High AV block
• Physical inability to exercise
A diagnosis of stable angina pectoris with an early positive exercise test was made after the patient exercised for 3 minutes and
50 seconds achieving 74% of his maximum predicted heart rate for
age. The test was terminated due to onset of chest pain followed
shortly afterwards by ST depression in leads V4–V6, reaching 2 mm
of downsloping ST depression at maximum.
The diagnosis was explained and he was prescribed aspirin 75 mg
daily, atenolol 50 mg daily and simvastatin 40 mg daily. He was provided with a glyceryl trinitrate (GTN) spray and given instructions
on its use. He was also given instructions to dial 999 if he develops
chest pain that is unrelieved by his GTN spray. He was counselled
Fletcher_C003.indd 11
Figure 3.3 Exercise tolerance test in progress.
5/15/2009 12:21:11 Shobha
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
on risk factor modification and given follow up in the Rapid Access
Chest Pain Clinic for consideration for angiography/percutaneous
coronary intervention.
Further reading
Axford J, O’Callaghan C. Medicine, Second Edition. Blackwell, Oxford, 2004.
Swanton RH, Banerjee S. Cardiology, Fifth Edition. Blackwell, Oxford, 2008
Fletcher_C003.indd 12
Ramrakha P, Moore K. Oxford Handbook of Acute Medicine, Second Edition.
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004.
Simon C, Everitt, H & Kendrick, T. Oxford Handbook of General Practice,
Second Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002.
Wyatt JP, Illingworth R, Graham C, et al. Oxford Handbook of
Emergency Medicine, Third Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford,
5/15/2009 12:21:20 Shobha
High Fever
Rachel Foster
A 29-year-old businessman presents 3 days after returning from a
3 week trip to India with a 56 hour history of headache,
abdominal pain, profound malaise and a high fever. He received a
course of vaccinations before his trip including Japanese B
encephalitis, typhoid, tetanus, diphtheria and polio boosters, rabies
and hepatitis A+B. He had taken chloroquine and proguanil as
malarial prophylaxis, but had a missed a couple of doses, and had
been aware of a few insect bites during his visit. He recalls having
drunk mainly bottled water and drinks from bars, some of which
contained ice. He denies having sex whilst abroad. He has no
significant past medical history and takes no medicines regularly.
There is no relevant family history, and he is a single non-smoker
who drinks approximately 21 units of alcohol per week.
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
The differential diagnosis of fever, particularly in the returning
traveller, is very wide. Finding the diagnosis can be difficult given
the non-specific nature of many of the accompanying symptoms,
and confirmation often depends upon the results of microbiological or serological tests, which take time. Acquiring a detailed history is invaluable as it can provide important clues. Some of these
infections can be rapidly fatal while others have a more indolent
course. Viral infections such as influenza A or B or enterovirus are
commonly acquired on the aircraft home and must be considered.
We will focus on the four most likely serious diagnoses for this case,
but be aware that there are many possible diagnoses not suggested
by the specific associated symptoms in this case which present with
fever (see Table 4.1).
Malaria is one of the most common travel-related infections in
tropical and sub-tropical areas. It causes around 400–900 million
cases of fever and approximately 1–3 million deaths per year
worldwide. It is for this reason that malaria should feature in the
list of differential diagnoses in nearly all cases of fever in patients
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
returning from endemic areas. The clinical features of malaria
include fever (which may or may not be cyclical), malaise and
myalgia, headache, anorexia, and anaemia. If severe (usually
Plasmodium falciparum malaria) then there may also be hypoxia,
adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), renal failure, hepatitis,
hypoglycaemia, confusion or even coma. The incubation period is
usually 7–14 days but may be as long as 1 year, particularly in the
context of chemoprophylaxis. It is important not to assume that
travellers to their native country are immune – immunity wanes
rapidly with time spent away from a malarious area. Also, don’t be
put off the diagnosis in those who have taken chemoprophylaxis –
it remains a possibility.
Examination may reveal pallor, jaundice, hepatosplenomegaly,
hypotension, cyanosis and haematuria, or none of the above. The
spectrum of disease severity is very wide.
Meningitis is characterised by headache accompanied by
photophobia and neck stiffness, high fever, rigors, malaise and
profound lethargy, and sometimes a non-blanching rash (variable:
tiny petechiae to large necrosing patches – see Figure 4.4). Patients
(particularly with meningococcal sepsis) may rapidly develop
septic shock. A significant proportion of those with meningococcal
sepsis will not have meningitis (i.e. no headache/neck stiffness) but
their mortality is just as high. In the elderly, listeria meningitis may
present as reduced consciousness or confusion without marked
meningism. Pneumococcal meningitis may be preceded by sore
throat or earache, may have a slower presentation, and should be
considered early.
Fever, rigors, malaise, anorexia, breathlessness, cough and pleuritic
chest pain are all common features of pneumonia. Misleading
symptoms can include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, jaundice and
headache. Recent travel, severe disease, non-respiratory symptoms
and deranged liver function strongly indicate Legionella as a differential diagnosis. A rapid onset of symptoms plus haemoptysis
(often in the absence of initial X-ray changes, sometimes following a soft tissue infection), suggests Panton-Valentine leukocidin
(PVL) producing Staphylococcus aureus and the microbiology
department should be contacted urgently. A long history including
cough, haemoptysis, night sweats and weight loss should prompt
Fletcher_C004.indd 13
5/13/2009 12:05:55 PM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Table 4.1 Other infections which should be considered in the patient presenting with fever.
Clinical features
Defining investigations
Rigors, high fever and chills, malaise, profound
muscle weakness, dizziness and confusion
Blood cultures
Red, hot, tender swollen skin. May have systemic
symptoms of sepsis
Blood cultures and skin swabs occasionally define the
Epstein–Barr virus (EBV)/streptococcal throat
Pustular tonsils may not be obvious until day 2 or 3
of a febrile illness with significant malaise, anorexia
and moderate headache (see Figure 4.1)
Throat swab. Monospot test and EBV serology
Lyme disease
Classic erythema chronicum migrans rash in early
infection (see Figure 4.2). Cranial nerve palsy,
arthritis and heart block in late infection
Borrelia burgdorferi serology (on blood or
cerebrospinal fluid)
Amoebic liver abscess
Recent dysentery (only 50%), right upper quadrant
pain and tenderness and high fever (see Figure 4.3)
Abdominal ultrasound scan/CT scan, amoebic
serology. Consider aspiration of collection – pyogenic
abscess must urgently be excluded
HIV seroconversion
Sore throat, rash, fever, myalgia. Recent risk
behaviour (may not be offered initially)
Low CD4 count, HIV antibody tests may be negative
initially. Antigen tests and PCR can be helpful if
suspicion is high
Hepatosplenomegaly, fever, lymphadenopathy
Appropriate travel history. Black fly bites
Blood film, serology
Cutaneous ulcer, or hepatosplenomegaly and fever.
Travel to Mediterranean, Asia or Africa. Sand fly bites
Blood culture, microscopy of ulcer, bone marrow
aspirate and microscopy
Haematuria and dysuria or blood-streaked stool,
lethargy. Rash with fever. History of swimming in
freshwater lakes in the tropics
Urine and stool microscopy for ova, cysts and
parasites. Serology
Various helminth infections
Fever, rash, cough, altered bowel habit. Some related
to eating raw fish or other food from endemic areas
Eosinophilia, stool and sputum microscopy for ova,
cysts and parasites
SARS and avian influenza
Fever, cough, breathlessness, myalgia, malaise,
possible diarrhoea with appropriate travel history in
context or current outbreak*
Nasopharyngeal aspirate, serology,
electronmicroscopy of respiratory secretions
Viral haemorrhagic fever
Fever, myalgia, malaise, bleeding from gums/nose
etc. History of travel to outbreak area, or contact
with known case†
Viral culture, serology and PCR. Must exclude malaria
Other tick and mosquito-borne spirochetes
and viruses, e.g. tick typhus, West Nile virus,
Chikungunya, Ross River Fever
Fever, myalgia, arthritis, headache. Travel to endemic
areas (outbreaks of West Nile in the USA, and
Chikungunya in South Europe)
*NB, At the time of writing there have not been any human–human transmitted cases of SARS since July 2003. Avian influenza is not transmissible between
humans and has only been found in those with close contact with poultry, largely in South-East Asia. Although there have been incidences of avian influenza in
British poultry, there have not been any human cases as yet.
†Suspected cases of viral haemorrhagic fever must be isolated and managed by staff wearing personal protection equipment until a risk assessment has been
made by a specialist.
investigation for acid fast bacilli and TB culture. The patient should
be isolated if chest X-ray changes are typical (see Figure 4.5).
‘Enteric fever’ is caused by Salmonella enterica serovars Typhi,
and Paratyphi types A, B and C with an incubation period of
7–14 days. Typhoid and paratyphoid are endemic in many parts
of the tropics where ice and frozen dairy products, in addition to
other foodstuffs, are often contaminated with the bacteria.
Paratyphoid usually causes a clinically milder illness than typhoid.
Fletcher_C004.indd 14
Patients present with persistently high fever, headache, malaise,
lethargy, apathy, anorexia, nausea and often abdominal pain.
Early in the illness patients may describe constipation, with diarrhoea occurring later. Neuropsychiatric complications occur late.
Sometimes a relative bradycardia is noted, but is not universal.
Generalised abdominal pain may be accompanied by liver and
spleen enlargement. Rose spots (pink macular/maculopapular
blanching lesions) may be found on the trunk (see Figure 4.6) in
patients with typhoid. Crackles may be heard bi-basally in the chest.
Increasing girth size and pain may indicate ileal perforation.
5/13/2009 12:05:56 PM
High Fever
Figure 4.1 Tonsillitis – typical of that caused by group A streptococcus.
Image courtesy of
Figure 4.3 Amoebic liver abscess. Image courtesy of www.medicine.mcgill.
Figure 4.2 Erythema chronicum migrans in the context of early Lyme
disease. Image courtesy of
Other causes of high fever not suggested
by the history
There are many illnesses other than infections of which fever is a
prominent symptom. Examples are given in Box 4.1. In this case
the history of travel is especially relevant and infections must be
considered. In other cases of fever, infections feature as or less
importantly in the differential diagnosis.
Case history revisited
On revisiting the patient’s history the diagnosis is still not clear.
The history of headache is worrying but not specific for meningitis. Abdominal pain is more indicative of enteric fever, but we
need to know more about whether the patient has suffered from
Fletcher_C004.indd 15
Figure 4.4 Meningococcal rash. Image kindly provided by Doctors mess,
diarrhoea or constipation. Malaria is distinctly possible, as it could
explain all the symptoms and requires urgent diagnostic consideration. Vaccination offers protection against Salmonella Typhi, but
consequently only confers immunity against one form of enteric
fever, and only if a person maintains appropriate antibody titres.
5/13/2009 12:05:56 PM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
The possibility of typhoid or paratyphoid in particular is possible
given a relatively low efficacy of the vaccine (55–70%) and the
history of ice consumption.
Figure 4.5 Pulmonary tuberculosis. Image kindly provided by Dr Andrew
McDonald Johnston,
Observations are as follows: blood pressure 90/60 mmHg, pulse
60 beats/min, temperature 38.9°C, respiratory rate 20 breaths/min,
oxygen saturations 98% on air. On general examination he appears
unwell and lethargic with a greyish pallor. He is not jaundiced; there
is no evidence of anaemia, lymphadenopathy, clubbing or cyanosis.
There are a couple of blanching, pink maculae on his flank, but
otherwise no evidence of rash on his skin.
There are fine crackles in both lung bases. His JVP is not visible.
Heart sounds are normal, with no ankle oedema. His abdomen is
soft but generally tender. The tip of the liver can just be felt, but
no other organomegaly or masses are palpable. Bowel sounds are
present. He is neurologically fully intact with a Glasgow Coma Score
of 15/15. Fundoscopy is normal and he has no neck stiffness.
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principal working diagnosis?
Principal working diagnosis – enteric fever
Malaria is still possible. Hypotension and his lethargic, unwell
appearance point to this, but the absence of jaundice, pronounced
pallor or hepatosplenomegaly casts doubt. Meningitis is unlikely
as the headache is not accompanied by meningism. Septicaemia
of some type is still possible. Amoebic liver abscess might be a
possibility, although one would expect more pronounced right
upper quadrant pain and tenderness. The lack of respiratory
symptoms or signs makes pneumonia unlikely. Enteric fever is
much more likely given the presence of pink macules (possible rose
spots), accompanied by diffuse abdominal tenderness, mild anaemia
and mild hepatitis, and a heart rate of 60 in a febrile patient.
Figure 4.6 Rose spots in the context of typhoid. Image courtesy of the
Health Protection Agency via Doctors mess,
Box 4.1 Non-infective causes of fever
• Malignancy
• Autoimmune diseases
• Drug reactions – allergic reactions to, or metabolic consequences
of the drug
• Seizures
• Environmental fever (due to very high external temperatures, or
excessive exercise)
• Hyperthyroidism
• Thrombosis
• Infarction – of myocardium, kidney, or lung (auto-immune
• Blood transfusion reaction
• Atmospheric pollution (e.g. nitrogen dioxide)
• Factitious fever (Munchausen’s syndrome/Munchausen’s by proxy)
Fletcher_C004.indd 16
This patient requires urgent fluid resuscitation and oxygen.
Investigation includes full blood count, renal and liver function
tests, ESR, CRP and chest X-ray. Three thick blood films specifically
for malaria parasites and haemolysis should be sent urgently. Blood,
urine, and stool should be cultured. If these do not yield a result,
bone marrow aspirate culture should be considered. Do not request
a Widal test for typhoid; it has been abandoned by most laboratories in the UK due to difficulty in the interpretation of results. Your
laboratory may have the newer rapid antigen tests available. Urinary
antigen testing should be performed if Legionella is suspected.
If meningitis is suspected in the absence of a classic meningococcal rash, a lumbar puncture should be performed to confirm the
diagnosis and identify the organism unless contraindicated. If the
history and examination point to pneumococcal meningitis a dose
of steroids with the first dose of antibiotics can improve outcome.
As enteric fever is likely, treatment with i.v. ceftriaxone or
cefotaxime should be initiated whilst awaiting the microbiological
5/13/2009 12:06:07 PM
High Fever
results and sensitivity testing. The patient may require inotropic
support. Management in an infectious diseases unit is appropriate.
This patient’s investigations showed negative malaria films, mild
anaemia, lymphopaenia, mild abnormalities of liver function and a
normal chest X-ray. His ESR was 87 and CRP 264. Salmonella Typhi
subsequently grew on stool culture. He was managed in an infectious diseases unit with fluids and intravenous ceftriaxone, and was
monitored for development of ileal perforation by measuring girth
size. He made a full recovery.
Further reading
Connor BA, Schwartz E. Typhoid and paratyphoid fever in travellers. Lancet
Infectious Diseases 2005; 5:623–628.
Fletcher_C004.indd 17
Cook GC (Ed.). Manson’s Tropical Diseases, 21st Edition. Saunders, London,
Felton JM, Bryceson AD. Fever in the returning traveller. British Journal of
Hospital Medicine 1996; 55:705–711.
Health Protection Agency website:
Heyderman RS on behalf of the British Infection Society. Early management
of suspected bacterial meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia in
immunocompetent adults. Journal of Infection 2005; 50:373–374. Also
Lalloo DG, Shingadia D, Pasvol G et al. UK malaria treatment guidelines.
Journal of Infection 2007; 54:111–121.
Ledingham JG, Warrell DA. Concise Oxford Textbook of Medicine. Oxford
University Press, Oxford, 2000.
Spira AM. Assessment of travellers who return home ill. Lancet 2003;
DH_4097254. Immunisation against Infectious Disease – ‘the Green Book’.
5/13/2009 12:06:15 PM
Vaginal Bleeding
Sian Ireland and Karen Selby
Box 5.1 Causes of vaginal bleeding
A 36-year-old, obese, diabetic woman presents with a 5-day
history of heavy vaginal bleeding. She is passing clots and using
more than 10 pads per day. The bleeding is accompanied by
right-sided lower abdominal pain that is constant and becoming
more severe. She has not vomited but has lost her appetite. In her
early twenties she was treated for a sexually transmitted infection.
She has a long history of irregular periods attributed to polycystic
ovary syndrome (PCOS), and has previously tried clomiphene in
order to try to become pregnant. Her last menstrual period was 8
weeks ago but given her menstrual irregularity she is not overly
concerned by this. She is sexually active and is not using any
contraception. She has no other medical problems and there is no
family history of a tendency to bleed.
• Dysfunctional uterine bleeding
• Cervical erosion
• Cervical polyps
• Infection
• Malignancy
Early pregnancy
• Spontaneous miscarriage
• Ectopic pregnancy
Late pregnancy
• Placental abruption
• Placenta praevia
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
The differential diagnosis of heavy vaginal bleeding is listed in
Box 5.1.
This woman could be pregnant as she has not had a period for
8 weeks. Bleeding in early pregnancy is most often due to a miscarriage, but ectopic pregnancy is the other important diagnosis
to consider.
Spontaneous miscarriage is the loss of a pregnancy before 24 weeks
gestation. It is thought that around 10–20% of pregnancies result
in spontaneous miscarriage. The majority are due to embryonic
abnormalities with a small percentage attributable to maternal
health factors such as diabetes, renal disease, autoimmune disorders, trauma and infections, or structural abnormalities of the
reproductive tract (see Figure 5.1).
1 Threatened miscarriage. This is vaginal bleeding during
early pregnancy without the passage of tissue. The cervical os remains closed and a viable pregnancy is seen in the
uterus. About half will progress to an actual miscarriage.
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
The bleeding and accompanying pain is not usually severe,
and on vaginal examination the os is closed and there is no
cervical excitation.
Inevitable miscarriage. There is dilatation of the cervical canal
and bleeding is usually more severe.
Incomplete miscarriage. Vaginal bleeding is more intense and
accompanied by abdominal pain. On vaginal examination the os
is open and tissue is being passed. The presence of tissue in the os
itself can cause cervical shock – low blood pressure accompanied
by bradycardia due to vagal stimulation. If the tissue is removed
with sponge forceps the shock will usually resolve.
Complete miscarriage. This is said to have occurred when the
fetus and the entire placenta have been passed. There is a history of vaginal bleeding and pain which has usually subsided.
Ultrasound scan reveals an empty uterus.
Delayed or missed miscarriage. This can only be diagnosed by
ultrasound scan when a gestational sac with a mean diameter
of more than 20 mm is seen but there is no fetal pole, or a fetal
pole greater than 6 mm is present but no fetal heart pulsation is
detected. These may present with slight vaginal bleeding.
Ectopic pregnancy
This occurs when a fertilised ovum implants at a site other than in
the uterus. Most often it occurs in the fallopian tubes but also occur
within the abdomen, cervix or ovary (see Box 5.2 and Figure 5.2).
Fletcher_C005.indd 18
5/13/2009 10:07:55 AM
Vaginal Bleeding
Figure 5.1 Miscarriage. (a) Threatened.
(b) Inevitable. (c) Complete. (d) Incomplete.
Box 5.2 Risk factors for ectopic pregnancy
Previous genital tract infection
Tubal surgery
Uterine or tubal structural abnormalities
The use of fertility drugs
The presence of an IUCD
Progesterone only oral contraceptive use (‘minipill’)
Previous ectopic pregnancy
Fallopian tube
Figure 5.2 Ectopic pregnancy.
The incidence is thought to be around 1–2% of reported pregnancies, and is increasing. Ectopic pregnancies account for 8% of
direct maternal deaths in the Confidential Enquiry into Maternal
and Child Health. The condition most commonly occurs in the
25–34 years age group.
There is usually a history of a late period and abdominal or pelvic
pain. Vaginal bleeding is usually minimal but can be severe in the
rare cases of cervical ectopic pregnancy. The presence of shoulder
pain suggests diaphragmatic irritation by free peritoneal fluid from
a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. There may be shock.
Clinical examination unfortunately is unreliable. If pregnancy
testing is positive an ultrasound scan may confirm the presence
of an intra- or extrauterine pregnancy. However, this may not be
In a shocked patient, rapid resuscitation and urgent referral to
a gynaecologist is necessary. Laparotomy is usually performed but
laparoscopy may be possible with a skilled operator. The priority
is to identify and control the point of haemorrhage. Typically the
source of bleeding is at the site where the ectopic pregnancy has
Fletcher_C005.indd 19
ruptured through a fallopian tube. In these cases partial salpingectomy may be appropriate.
In a haemodynamically stable patient the surgical route of choice
is laparoscopy. Salpingectomy is usually performed but it may be
possible to attempt to conserve the tube by performing a salpingostomy, especially if the opposite tube has been removed previously
or appears damaged.
It is often difficult in stable patients to differentiate between
intra- and extrauterine pregnancy. In these situations the term
‘pregnancy of unknown location’ is often used. Such patients are
followed up within an Early Pregnancy Assessment Unit (EPAU)
setting with β-HCG monitoring and scans when necessary. As ectopic pregnancy is not ruled out in these patients, open access to an
EPAU is necessary in case of increasing symptoms.
Placental abruption and placenta praevia
The patient is obese and it is possible that she has a concealed
advanced pregnancy. Conditions associated with later pregnancy
presenting with vaginal bleeding may be relevant to her.
She reports a period 8 weeks ago, so it is important to establish if
this had been a normal period for her. As spotting does occur during pregnancy this could mean that she is advanced in a pregnancy,
making the conditions of placental abruption, or placenta praevia
more relevant.
Placental abruption refers to disruption of the placental attachment to the uterus by haemorrhage. Bleeding from the placenta
occurs and the resultant haematoma formation causes further
separation and compromise of the blood supply to the fetus. The
severity of fetal distress depends on the degree of separation, but
if it is complete or nearly complete, fetal death is inevitable unless
immediate Caesarean section can be performed. Placental abruption is thought to occur in approximately 1% of all pregnancies
worldwide (see Box 5.3). The associated perinatal mortality rate is
around 15% and there is a significant associated maternal morbidity due to haemorrhage and coagulopathy.
Box 5.3 Causes of placental abruption
Maternal hypertension
Smoking and alcohol consumption as well as cocaine use
Advanced maternal age
5/13/2009 10:07:55 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Painful vaginal bleeding is the commonest presenting complaint.
On examination a tender, tonically contracted uterus can be felt,
often associated with fetal distress (see Figure 5.3).
Placenta praevia is an obstetric complication of the second and
third trimesters and one of the main causes of vaginal bleeding. It
occurs when the placenta covers the cervical os to varying degrees
and can be described as total, partial or marginal (see Figure 5.4).
It occurs in 0.5% of pregnancies and has a mortality rate of 0.03%,
with most deaths due to haemorrhage and coagulopathy. The exact
aetiology is unknown but risk factors include high parity, multiple
pregnancy, advanced maternal age, and previous Caesarean section
or miscarriage.
Sudden onset of bright red, painless vaginal bleeding during the
third trimester is the most common presentation. The woman may
be haemodynamically compromised but the uterus is soft and nontender which is not the case in placental abruption. An initial bleed
may be self limiting though recurrent and profuse bleeding are well
In most units low lying placentas are identified at the detailed
anomaly scan between 19 and 23 weeks. If a patient with a low
lying placenta is bleeding, vaginal examination including speculum
examination should be avoided due to the risk of further bleeding.
Dysfunctional uterine bleeding
Dysfunctional uterine bleeding (DUB) is the most common cause
of vaginal bleeding during reproductive years and is the most likely
diagnosis in the patient if she is not pregnant. In most cases (90%)
it is due to anovulatory cycles when the corpus luteum fails to form,
resulting in a failure of cyclical progesterone secretion. The resulting
unopposed oestrogens stimulate excess growth of the endometrium
which eventually necroses and is shed. In ovulatory DUB prolonged
progesterone secretion causes irregular shedding of the endometrium and spotting. This form is associated with polycystic ovary
syndrome and other causes of altered hypothalamic function.
A normal menstrual cycle occurs every 21–35 days and lasts
from 2–7 days. Average blood loss is 35–150 ml which represents
up to eight soaked tampons or towels per day; usually no more than
2 days are heavy.
Menorrhagia is prolonged or excessive uterine bleeding occurring at regular intervals. Bleeding may also be irregular and/or
more frequent than normal.
DUB is common and morbidity is related to the degree of blood
loss which is rarely, but occasionally, severe enough to be life threatening. It can occur at any age but is most common at either end of
the reproductive years. It is usually diagnosed when other causes of
vaginal bleeding have been ruled out.
Women usually present following heavy or prolonged bleeding. It
is important when taking the history to try to quantify the amount
of blood loss by asking how many pads or tampons per day the
woman is using, whether she is passing clots, or flooding. Similarly,
symptoms and signs of anaemia should be looked for.
Prolonged periods are usually treated with oral progestagens
such as norethisterone 5 mg three times a day to stop the bleeding.
If the bleeding is heavy, tranexamic acid, 1 g four times a day may
be helpful.
Local causes of vaginal bleeding
Infection (commonly Chlamydia and Trichomonas), cervical polyps
or cervical erosions often present as post-coital bleeding or intermenstrual bleeding. Vaginal speculum examination usually reveals
the cause. Triple swabs should be taken to investigate for infection.
Cervical cancer can present with similar symptoms and it is
important that the cervix is visualised if bleeding is persistent.
Congealed blood
Umbilical cord
Concealed haemorrhage
Case history revisited
Given the differential diagnoses, ascertaining whether this woman is
pregnant is important. Additional questions concerning the symptoms of pregnancy should be asked, e.g. nausea, morning sickness,
breast tenderness, tiredness.
Figure 5.3 Placental abruption.
Fletcher_C005.indd 20
Figure 5.4 Placenta praevia. (a) Normal
placenta. (b) Minor placenta praevia.
(c) Major placenta praevia.
5/13/2009 10:07:56 AM
Vaginal Bleeding
On examination she looks distressed, pale and cool. Vital signs are
pulse 40 beats/ minute, blood pressure 86/40 mmHg, respiratory rate
22/minute. Her abdomen is not distended but she is tender suprapubically. Bowel sounds are normal. A pregnancy test is positive.
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principal working diagnosis?
Principal working diagnosis – Incomplete
miscarriage with associated cervical shock
This woman is pregnant, has heavy vaginal bleeding, and is in shock
with a bradycardia. Such findings strongly suggest that she has
retained tissue in the os giving rise to cervical shock.
The patient should be resuscitated with oxygen and intravenous
fluid via two large bore, proximal cannulae.
The presence of a bradycardia should prompt examination of the
cervix to remove any tissue in the os. Products of conception in the
cervical os are easily removed with sponge forceps.
Once resuscitated the patient’s condition should be discussed
with the local EPAU and appropriate transfer or outpatient follow
up arranged depending on levels of pain, bleeding and observations.
Fletcher_C005.indd 21
Patients should be immediately evaluated for haemodynamic
stability, and fluid resuscitation initiated if required. Oxytocin may
be required if bleeding is severe. In a rhesus-negative patient who is
pregnant and bleeding per vaginum, rhesus (D) immune globulin
should be administered if the pregnancy is 12 weeks or more, to
prevent haemolytic disease of the newborn in future pregnancies.
Investigation of bleeding in early pregnancy is usually through
an EPAU. Patients are seen by specialist nursing staff in an outpatient setting where ultrasound scans and blood investigations can
be performed as necessary. These units reduce the need for patients
to be admitted to hospital.
This woman’s condition dramatically improved once tissue was
removed from her cervical os. She was allowed home after overnight observations and all her symptoms had settled when reviewed
in the EPAU 2 days later.
Further reading
Knot A, Polmear A. Practical General Practice: Guidelines for Effective Clinical
Management, Fourth Edition. Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 2004.
Simon C, Everitt H, Kendrick T. Oxford Handbook of General Practice, Second
Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002.
Wyatt JP, Illingworth R, Graham C et al. Oxford Handbook of Emergency
Medicine, Third Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
5/13/2009 10:07:56 AM
Transient Weakness
Carole Gavin
A 70-year-old woman presents after suddenly developing a
left-sided facial weakness and some clumsiness of her left hand
40 minutes previously. Her symptoms have improved but her face
still feels heavy. She is a diabetic prescribed gliclazide and has
recently begun medication for hypertension. She had a
mastectomy for breast cancer 6 years ago and has recently been
discharged from follow up. She has smoked 20 cigarettes a day
for the past 40 years. Over the past few weeks she has had
intermittent frontal headache and occasional nausea following a
minor head injury but otherwise has felt well. She lives alone and
is normally fully independent.
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
There are various causes of transient neurological symptoms
(see Table 6.1) which can be divided into conditions affecting the
central nervous system, conditions affecting the peripheral nervous
system and those due to metabolic abnormalities.
The patient is diabetic, on gliclazide and is therefore prone to
hypoglycaemia. Hypoglycaemia is an important cause of neurological symptoms and signs and all patients should have blood
glucose measured at the bedside. It is well recognised that patients
with apparently dense strokes dramatically improve and return to
normal when their hypoglycaemia is treated.
Transient ischaemic attack (TIA)/minor stroke
This patient has a number of risk factors for cerebrovascular disease. Stroke is the commonest cause of a unilateral motor and/or
sensory deficit. Traditionally a TIA was defined as a sudden, focal
neurological deficit lasting for less than 24 hours, presumed to be
of vascular origin, and confined to an area of the brain or eye perfused by a specific artery. However, it is now known that transient
neurological symptoms may be associated with cerebral infarction
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
Table 6.1 Causes of transient neurology.
Central nervous system
Minor stroke/TIA
Hemiplegic migraine
Todd’s paresis
Subdural haematoma
Brain tumour
Cerebral abscess
Peripheral nervous system
Peripheral neuropathy
Bell’s palsy
Decompression sickness (‘the bends’)
on brain imaging and that in reality most TIAs resolve within
1 hour. A new definition has therefore been proposed that TIA is a
brief episode of neurological dysfunction caused by focal brain or
retinal ischemia, with clinical symptoms typically lasting less than
1 hour, and without evidence of acute infarction. Stroke and TIA
are therefore best thought of as two ends of the spectrum of acute
brain ischaemia. Risk factors for both are the same and include
hypertension, hyperlipidaemia, smoking, diabetes and atrial fibrillation. Typical symptoms include hemiparesis, hemiparesthesia,
dysarthria, dysphasia, diplopia, circumoral numbness, imbalance,
and monocular blindness depending on the vascular territory
involved. The ROSIER scale (Recognition of Stroke in the Emergency
Room) (see Figure 6.1) is a useful stroke recognition tool for staff
seeing the patient in the acute phase. When making a diagnosis of
TIA it is important to establish that the symptoms were focal, came
on suddenly and were maximal at onset. Another key point is that
symptoms of TIA are usually ‘negative’, e.g. loss of power, loss of
sensation, loss of vision, whilst ‘positive’ symptoms, e.g. pins and
needles, abnormal movements suggest an alternative diagnosis.
Subdural haematoma
This woman has had a head injury within the past few weeks so
the possibility of a subdural haematoma must be considered.
These arise in the potential space between the dura and arachnoid, often from ruptured bridging veins. The space enlarges as the
brain atrophies and so subdural haematomas are more common
in the elderly. Symptoms are often vague and may develop slowly
Fletcher_C006.indd 22
5/13/2009 10:09:27 AM
Transient Weakness
Date/Time of symptom onset
BP ….../……
*If BM < 3.5 mmol/l treat urgently and reassess once blood glucose normal
Has there been loss of consciousness or syncope?
Has there been seizure activity?
Figure 6.2 Illustration of a subdural haematoma.
Is there a NEW ACUTE onset (or on awakening from sleep)
Asymmetric facial weakness
Asymmetric grip weakness
Asymmetric arm weakness
Asymmetric leg weakness
Speech disturbance
Visual field defect
*Total Score………. (−2 to +6)
Provisional diagnosis
Non-stroke (specify)…………………………….
*stroke is unlikely but not completely excluded if total scores ≤ 0
Figure 6.1 ROSIER Scale proforma.
with gradual deterioration or fluctuation in conscious level. Focal
symptoms may develop due to mass effect on the brain tissue
(see Figures 6.2 and 6.3).
Hemiplegic migraine
Migraine may be associated with sensory, motor or aphasic aura.
Hemiplegic migraine is characterised by unilateral sensory and/
or motor signs. Sensory auras occur more frequently than motor
auras and usually affect the hand and arm. In over 90% of cases
the aura precedes the onset of headache. The diagnosis should be
considered in patients who have a previous history of hemiplegic
migraine, but if the aura has lasted for longer than an hour neuroimaging may be required to exclude migrainous infarction. The
diagnosis of hemiplegic migraine is one of exclusion if the patient
has no previous history of migraine, as in the case of this woman, or
if the history differs from their usual migraine symptoms.
Todd’s paresis
Todd’s paresis (also called post-ictal paresis), is a transient neurological deficit following an epileptic seizure. As the name implies,
the classical deficit is weakness of a hand, arm or leg that appears
following focal motor seizure activity. The neurological signs are
unilateral and range in duration from seconds to over 20 minutes.
The diagnosis may be apparent from the history if the focal deficit
follows a witnessed fit and should be considered in a patient with
a history of epilepsy. A small proportion of patients with a stroke
Fletcher_C006.indd 23
Figure 6.3 Subdural haematoma.
may present with a fit so if the neurological symptoms persist for
longer than an hour neuroimaging should be performed.
Brain tumour
This patient has a history of breast cancer and may have a cerebral metastasis. Patients with primary or metastatic brain tumours
may present with transient focal neurological symptoms. Suspicion
should be raised if the neurological deficit does not fit with a single
vascular territory as would be the case with a stroke or TIA, and
if there are any ‘positive’ as opposed to ‘negative’ symptoms. The
patient should be asked about other symptoms such as headache,
cognitive impairment, or nausea and vomiting that may indicate
raised intracranial pressure. The diagnosis is usually made by CT
or MRI scan.
Other causes of transient weakness not
suggested by the history
Bell’s palsy
Bell’s palsy is defined as an acute peripheral facial nerve palsy of
unknown cause, although herpes simplex viral activation has
become widely accepted as the likely cause in the majority of cases.
Patients typically present with unilateral facial weakness which may
be associated with an inability to close the eye and difficulty eating or
speaking due to facial weakness (see Figure 6.4). Patients often think
that their symptoms are due to a stroke and it may be misdiagnosed
as such by inexperienced junior doctors. Its differentiation from a
central (upper motor neurone) condition such as a stroke is suggested by an inability to elevate the brow as this area receives bilateral
innervation. However, a partial peripheral lesion that spares the
temporal branch to the frontalis will result in the patient still being
able to wrinkle the forehead. The course tends to be progressive
5/13/2009 10:09:27 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Table 6.2 Common peripheral neuropathies.
Radial nerve
Wrist drop ‘Saturday night palsy’
Paraesthesia ring and little fingers
Reduced power of grip
Carpal tunnel syndrome: paraesthesia of
thumb, index and middle fingers
Common peroneal
Foot drop
Paraesthesia dorsum of foot
Lumbosacral radiculopathies:
Decreased foot dorsiflexion, inversion and
Figure 6.4 Right sided Bell's palsy.
over several weeks, usually resolving to at least some degree within
6 months. The auditory meatus should be examined for the presence of herpetic vesicles which may support the diagnosis. Initial
management consists of eye care, steroids and antiviral treatment.
Follow up should be arranged as further investigation is warranted
if the symptoms do not resolve. In this woman the clumsiness in
her hand excludes Bell’s palsy as a cause of her symptoms.
Peripheral neuropathy
Focal motor and/or sensory deficit may arise as a result of a
peripheral nerve palsy or mononeuropathy. Sudden onset of motor
weakness, e.g. foot drop, due to peripheral neuropathy may be
thought to be a stroke by the patient or an unwary clinician. Making
the diagnosis may be difficult as it depends on recognising that the
neurological deficit is confined to the distribution of a single nerve,
and requires good knowledge of peripheral nerve anatomy and of
the motor and sensory territories of each nerve. Common causes
include trauma, external compression, internal compression,
e.g. median nerve entrapment in the carpal tunnel, or intrinsic
lesions to the nerve, e.g. arising as a focal manifestation of a more
generalised process such as vasculitis. Common nerves involved
are shown in Table 6.2. Symptoms may be transient, e.g. external
compression of the nerve following an episode of sleep, making
the diagnosis even more difficult if the symptoms have resolved
by the time the patient is seen. In the case of this patient she had
symptoms in two different nerve territories thus making the
diagnosis unlikely.
Metabolic disturbance
Several metabolic abnormalities may cause neurological symptoms.
Hypocalcaemia may cause transient parasthesia especially of the
peripheries. It may be accompanied by a history of hyperventilation
and other symptoms such as tetany or carpopedal spasm.
Fletcher_C006.indd 24
Weakness of hip flexion, knee extension and
leg abduction
Reduced sensation anterior thigh to medial
aspect of shin
Hypokalemia or hyperkalaemia may cause episodes of severe
muscle weakness (periodic paralysis). It may be associated with
cardiac arrhythmias and an ECG should be performed urgently
pending blood results.
Symptoms resulting from metabolic abnormalities tend to be
generalised rather than focal and therefore are unlikely to be the
cause of this woman’s problem.
Decompression sickness
Decompression sickness may cause paraesthesia or weakness due
to involvement of the spinal cord. It may be associated with joint
pains, rash and delirium and the diagnosis is usually obvious from
the history. Consider it in people returning from holiday who may
have been diving.
Case history revisited
This woman tells you that prior to going to sleep she felt perfectly
well. She has never experienced anything like this before and does
not have any history of migraine or epilepsy. Her occasional headaches usually occur at the end of the day and are completely relieved
by paracetamol. Her daughter, who dialled 999, tells you that when
her mother rang her to tell her she was unwell she thought her
mother had been drinking as her speech seemed very slurred and
she was slightly confused. She was very worried as her mother rarely
drinks. She now appears to be back to her normal self and thinks
the symptoms lasted about 90 minutes in total.
On clinical examination there is no obvious focal neurological
deficit and speech and cognition are normal. Blood pressure is
140/70 mmHg and heart rate is 90 beats/minute. Blood glucose is
7.5 mmol/l. Respiratory and gastrointestinal examination is normal.
There is no evidence of Bell’s palsy and ear, nose and throat examination is normal. An ECG confirms sinus rhythmn.
5/13/2009 10:09:28 AM
Transient Weakness
Table 6.5 Risk stratification by ABCD2 score.
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principal working diagnosis?
Principal working diagnosis – TIA
The combination of transient left-sided face and hand weakness
associated with speech disturbance is compatible with a transient
ischaemic attack. This woman has a number of risk factors including hypertension, smoking and diabetes. Patients who have had a
TIA have up to a 20% risk of stroke in the first month with the
risk being greatest in the first 72 hours. The key points in the acute
management of such patients is therefore to identify and address
any modifiable risk factors (see Table 6.3), to initiate antiplatelet
treatment if appropriate, and to identify those patients at greatest
risk in order to prioritise investigation and referral for definitive
management such as carotid endarterectomy.
The ABCD2 score is a validated prognostic score (see Tables 6.4
and 6.5) that has been proposed in order to identify those patients
at greatest risk of stroke who are most likely to benefit from early
Table 6.3 Risk factors for stroke.
Risk factor
Blood pressure measurement
Diabetes mellitis
Blood sugar
Lipid profile
Atrial fibrillation
Carotid artery stenosis
Carotid Doppler ultrasound
ABCD2 score
Risk category
Stroke risk
1% at 2 days
1.2% at 7 days
3.1% at 90 days
4.1% at 2 days
5.9% at 7 days
9.8% at 90 days
8.1% at 2 days
11.7% at 7 days
17.8% at 90 days
This lady had an ABCD2 score of 5. Full blood count, biochemical profile and random lipid profile were all normal. A CT scan of
the brain was normal. She was reviewed by the acute stroke team
who arranged for carotid Doppler ultrasound to be performed in
2 days time as an outpatient. She was given a 300 mg stat dose of
aspirin and discharged on 75 mg aspirin daily pending review in
the TIA clinic in 5 days time. She was advised to stop smoking and
to return to the hospital immediately in the event of any further
Further reading
Patten JP. Neurological Differential Diagnosis. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 1995.
Ramrakha P, Moore K. Oxford Handbook of Acute Medicine, Second Edition.
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004.
Simon C, Everitt H, Kendrick T. Oxford Handbook of General Practice, Second
Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002.
Tintinalli J, Kelen G, Stapczynski S, et al. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive
Study Guide, Sixth Edition. McGraw-Hill, New York, 2003.
Wyatt JP, Illingworth R, Graham C, et al. Oxford Handbook of Emergency
Medicine, Third Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
Table 6.4 ABCD2 score.
ABCD2 score variable
Choose appropriate single score from each section
<60 years
60 years or above
Blood pressure
SBP >140 mmHg or DBP >90 mmHg
BP below these levels
Clinical features
Any unilateral weakness (face/hand/arm/leg)
Speech disturbance (without motor weakness)
Other weakness
Duration of symptoms
>60 minutes
10–59 minutes
<10 minutes
Fletcher_C006.indd 25
5/13/2009 10:09:29 AM
Abdominal Pain – Epigastric
Duncan Drury
A 44-year-old man presents with upper abdominal pain. He gives
a history of intermittent episodes of upper abdominal pain for
which he has taken both ibuprofen and antacids in the past. On
the morning of presentation he was working in the garden,
chopping down trees. He had been experiencing some abdominal
pain for the last few days but it was bothering him more than
normal. He had just enjoyed a typical Sunday lunch with his wife
and had three glasses of wine, when he suddenly developed
epigastric pain which was much more severe than earlier. The pain
was of such intensity that he felt short of breath, nauseated and
started sweating. In the past he had suffered from hypertension
for which he is taking amlodipine. He was recently prescribed
ramipril to improve his blood pressure control, along with aspirin
75 mg daily. He is an ex-smoker having given up 6 months ago.
He also admits to being a moderate drinker since he was made
redundant from his job as an office manager 4 months ago.
He has no other significant past medical or surgical history.
Question: What differential diagnosis would
you consider from the history?
The prevalence of gallstones in the UK is estimated to be 10–20%
and approximately 20% of these remain asymptomatic. They
are composed of cholesterol, bile pigments or a combination of
both. They are usually diagnosed on an ultrasound scan but are
occasionally visible on a plain abdominal X-ray (see Figure 7.1).
Gallstones may present with acute cholecystitis due to obstruction
of Hartman’s pouch or cystic duct culminating in inflammation
of the gallbladder and typically right upper quadrant or epigastric
pain that may radiate to the back or shoulder tip. It is frequently
associated with nausea and vomiting. Such patients often have a
fever, tachycardia and right upper quadrant tenderness and guarding. Pain on inspiration and on palpation of the right upper quadrant (Murphy’s sign) is typical of acute cholecystitis.
Gallstones may also present with biliary colic (often significant
abdominal pain but minimal/mild abdominal tenderness). Biliary
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
Figure 7.1 Gallstones on plain X-ray.
colic is due to smooth muscle contraction of either the cystic duct
or common bile duct in an attempt to clear a gallstone and may be
associated with abnormal liver function tests if the stone is causing
significant duct obstruction.
Gastritis/duodenitis/peptic ulcer
Inflammation of the stomach/duodenum may range from
superficial erosions in the mucosal lining to ulceration which is
usually larger and deeper. The commonest risk factors include
non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) use, aspirin,
alcohol, Helicobacter pylori and biliary reflux. Duodenal ulcers
are significantly more common than gastric ulcers and are more
commonly associated with H. pylori than gastric ulcers. Symptoms
may vary from asymptomatic to indigestion, vomiting and bleeding. There is a poor correlation between intensity of symptoms
and endoscopic severity of the disease. Treatment is with proton
pump inhibitors coupled with H. Pylori eradication if found to
be present.
Fletcher_C007.indd 26
5/13/2009 10:10:44 AM
Abdominal Pain – Epigastric
Perforated peptic ulcer disease
Untreated, a peptic ulcer may progress to perforation resulting in
initially localised peritonitis, subsequently becoming generalised if
the condition is not treated. Typically a patient has symptoms associated with gastritis (see above) but subsequent perforation results
in a sudden increase in upper abdominal pain that may radiate
through to the back. Nausea is fairly common as are findings of
tachycardia, dehydration and low grade pyrexia. On examination,
there is significant epigastric tenderness with signs of either localised or generalised peritonism (guarding, rigidity, rebound and
percussion tenderness). Bowel sounds are often absent reflecting an
ileus that often ensues.
A pain of musculoskeletal origin should be suspected if the patient
gives a history of trauma or unaccustomed exertion prior to the
development of pain. In the event of a significant mechanism of
injury, damage to internal solid organs (particularly blunt trauma),
or damage to the viscera (particularly with rapid deceleration forces),
should always be considered and actively ruled out. A diagnosis of
musculoskeletal pain would only be made with an appropriate history coupled with the absence of any other abnormalities (i.e. normal
temperature, blood pressure and pulse rate backed up by normal
biochemical, haematological and radiological investigations).
Acute pancreatitis is characterised by severe epigastric pain typically radiating through to the back. It is often associated with nausea
and vomiting. There are many causes of pancreatitis (see Box 7.1),
but the vast majority of cases in the UK are due to gallstones and
alcohol. The patient with mild pancreatitis may have very few signs
or may have shock, pyrexia, generalised abdominal tenderness and
guarding with abdominal wall discolouration (peri-umbilical –
Cullen’s sign, flanks – Grey Turner’s sign) with severe necrotising
pancreatitis. Diagnosis is confirmed either biochemically (serum
amylase greater than four times the upper limit of the laboratory
reference range), or radiologically. Investigations include ultrasound, contrast-enhanced CT and MRI, and are used to establish
the cause and assess the severity and complications.
Myocardial infarction
This would typically present with severe chest pain that often occurs
at rest associated with nausea, vomiting, sweating and breathlessness, and may radiate to the neck or arms. However, atypical
presentations of myocardial infarction are well recognised and
the pain may be experienced exclusively in the epigastrium.
Consequently, ischaemic heart disease should always be considered
in the differential diagnosis of any at risk patient presenting with
epigastric pain (see Figure 7.2).
Box 7.1 Causes of acute pancreatitis
Autoimmune (e.g. polyarteritis nodosa)
Scorpion bites
Hyperlipidaemia, hypercalcaemia, hypothermia
ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography)
Drugs (e.g. azathioprine, mercaptopurine)
Other causes of epigastric abdominal pain not
suggested by the history
Leaking abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA)
An aneurysm is a focal dilatation of an artery to more than 50% of
that of the normal adjacent vessel. The prevalence of AAA is estimated to be 7–8% of men aged 65 years and older and is therefore
unlikely in a man aged 44.
A ruptured aneurysm should always be considered in a patient
with sudden onset severe abdominal pain radiating to the back,
associated with circulatory collapse. Rupture into the retroperitoneal space is initially contained by the resultant hypotension
and tamponading effect of bleeding into a fixed space. This situation must be rapidly diagnosed to provide an opportunity for
emergency life-saving vascular intervention. Free intraperitoneal rupture or subsequent rupture of a retroperitoneal bleed is
invariably fatal.
Figure 7.2 Infero-lateral myocardial infarction.
Fletcher_C007.indd 27
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ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Other uncommon causes are contained in Box 7.2
Box 7.2 Uncommon causes of upper abdominal pain
Pulmonary embolism
Basal pneumonia (see Figure 7.3)
Ischaemic bowel
Dissecting aortic aneurysm
Addison’s disease
Renal colic
Box 7.3 Blood test results
FBC – Hb 14.6, WCC 15.0, Plt 315
U+Es – Na+ 141, K+ 3.9, Urea 8.0, Creatinine 122
LFTs – Normal
Amylase – 170 (ref. range 70–140)
Glucose – 6.2
Calcium (corrected) – 2.46
Cardiac markers (performed at 12 h) – normal
Figure 7.4 Erect chest X-ray.
Figure 7.3 Right basal pneumonia.
Case history revisited
This patient’s history is quite non-specific and a number of diagnoses are quite plausible. A musculoskeletal cause for the pain
whilst possible would be unlikely given his relative inactivity at the
time of deterioration. He does have a number of risk factors for
cardiovascular diseases (male gender, increasing age, hypertension,
ex-smoker) and gastrointestinal diseases (alcohol intake, aspirin,
NSAIDs and stress from recent unemployment).
In order to determine the diagnosis in this patient a thorough physical examination and further investigations are required.
On examination, he is apyrexial with a blood pressure of
140/80 mmHg and is tachycardic at 110 beats/min. His respiratory
rate is 22 breaths/minute and his oxygen saturation is 97% on air.
He is still complaining of pain in his abdomen.
Examination of his cardiorespiratory system is unremarkable
other than the tachycardia and tachypnoea.
Examination of his abdomen demonstrates marked epigastric
tenderness with generalised rigidity, guarding and rebound tenderness. His bowel sounds are absent. No masses were felt.
An ECG revealed sinus tachycardia but was otherwise normal.
His blood test results are seen in Box 7.3. His chest X-ray is seen in
Figure 7.4.
Fletcher_C007.indd 28
Question: Given the history, examination
findings and investigations what is your
principal working diagnosis?
Principal working diagnosis – perforated
peptic ulcer
The clinical findings are those of peritonitis.
His history contains several risk factors for peptic ulcer disease:
NSAID usage, alcohol usage and stress. His symptoms have persisted for some time and with the sudden onset of worsening pain,
his rigid abdomen and free air under the diaphragm all suggest perforation of an underlying peptic ulcer.
He requires rehydration with intravenous fluids to restore his
circulatory volume. A combination of vomiting and sequestration
of fluid within the gastrointestinal tract (third space loss) almost
always results in dehydration at presentation that needs correcting prior to surgical intervention. He requires a urinary catheter
to ensure good urine output and to confirm he is adequately fluid
resuscitated. In addition, he should be given broad spectrum
intravenous antibiotics (cefuroxime and metronidazole). The
surgical team should review him and consideration given to
an urgent laparotomy. This man was resuscitated and taken to
theatre, where he underwent emergency surgery. This confirmed
5/13/2009 10:10:56 AM
Abdominal Pain – Epigastric
a perforated pre-pyloric gastric ulcer. He underwent thorough
peritoneal lavage and oversewing of his ulcer.
Post-operatively he made an uneventful recovery and was treated
with a proton pump inhibitor. A course of H. pylori eradication
therapy was undertaken as he was found to have a positive serology.
Upon discharge he underwent a check endoscopy to confirm both
healing of the ulcer and successful eradication of H. pylori.
Fletcher_C007.indd 29
Further reading
Knot A, Polmear A. Practical General Practice: Guidelines for Effective
Clinical Management, Fourth Edition. Butterworth-Heinemann,
Oxford, 2004.
Simon C, Everitt H, Kendrick T. Oxford Handbook of General Practice, Second
Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002.
Tintinalli J, Kelen G, Stapczynski S, et al. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive
Study Guide. Sixth Edition. McGraw-Hill, New York, 2003.
Wyatt JP, Illingworth R, Graham C, et al. Oxford Handbook of Emergency
Medicine, Third Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
5/13/2009 10:11:05 AM
Acute Headache
Tom Locker
Box 8.1 Causes of thunderclap headache
A 39-year-old woman suddenly develops a severe generalised
headache which still persists when you assess her. She vomited at
the onset of the headache and still feels nauseated. She has felt
generally unwell for the last 24 hours and thinks she had a fever.
She has a long history of migraines. These are usually preceded by
alterations in her vision following which she gradually develops a
throbbing left-sided headache, associated with vomiting. She reports
that her headache today is different to her usual migraine. Five years
ago she had breast cancer for which she underwent a mastectomy.
Subarachnoid haemorrhage
Intracerebral haemorrhage
Venous sinus thrombosis
Cough headache
Coital headache
Pituitary apoplexy
Spontaneous intracranial hypotension
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
Subarachnoid haemorrhage
Sudden, severe, explosive headaches (thunderclap) may be the
result of a number of different conditions (see Box 8.1).
Only 12% of such patients will have a subarachnoid haemorrhage (SAH) although up to two-thirds of patients presenting to
hospital with this type of headache, investigated as an inpatient,
have a serious underlying disorder.
The majority of SAHs (see Figure 8.1) result from rupture of
cerebral artery aneurysms and usually occur in people aged between
40 and 60.
The key feature of the headache in SAH is the sudden onset rather
than the severity of headache. The headache is frequently described
as ‘the worst ever’ although occasionally it may be moderate or mild
in severity. The onset of headache in SAH may be associated with
activities that cause a transient increase in blood pressure such as
straining, lifting heavy objects, etc.
The site of the headache is variable and therefore not a useful guide to diagnosis. Fronto-temporal headaches as well as the
‘classical’ occipital headache are well recognised in SAH.
Given these features, any patient presenting with a sudden onset
of severe headache should be investigated further to rule out a
subarachnoid haemorrhage. Migraine is an unsafe diagnosis in
such patients unless there is a clear history of multiple previous
episodes of the same headache.
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
Figure 8.1 CT scan showing subarachnoid haemorrhage with bleeding into
the ventricles.
Clinical examination may reveal a decreased conscious level,
signs of meningeal irritation (see Table 8.1) or focal neurological
abnormalities. However, examination may be entirely normal.
Migraine affects up to 15% of adults in North America and Western
Europe. It typically lasts between 4 and 72 hours unless successfully terminated by drug treatment. There are two main types
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Acute Headache
Table 8.1 Signs of meningeal irritation.
Neck stiffness
With the patient supine the head is held by the examiner.
The neck is passively flexed and the amount of resistance
noted. The sign is positive when there is objective stiffness,
not when the patient reports a subjective feeling of stiffness.
Painful inflammatory conditions of the pharynx, such as
tonsillitis or quinsy may result in a false positive finding.
Brudzinski’s sign In Brudzinski’s sign flexion of the hips and knees occurring
in response to passive flexion of the neck indicates
meningeal irritation.
Kernig’s sign
With the patient supine the hip and knee are passively flexed
to 90 degrees. The knee is then passively extended. The sign
is positive when there is resistance to extension.
This test usefully distinguishes meningeal irritation from
the local cause of neck stiffness described above.
Box 8.2 Features of migraine
The headache has at least two of the following features:
• unilateral location
• pulsating quality
• moderate or severe intensity
• aggravation by physical activity
At least one of the following occur during the headache:
• nausea and/or vomiting
• Photophobia or phonophobia
of migraine: without aura and with aura. The characteristics of
migraine without aura are shown in Box 8.2.
In migraine with aura the patient may experience visual symptoms, such as lines in the vision or loss of vision, sensory symptoms,
or dysphasia. The aura lasts between 5 and 60 minutes and is followed within an hour by a headache fulfilling the criteria in Box 8.2.
Some patients are able to identify particular triggers for their
migraine. These may include alcohol, certain foods, alterations in
sleep pattern or menstruation.
Caution should be exercised in attributing focal neurological
abnormalities, e.g. dysphasia or weakness to migraine, unless the
patient has previously experienced a number of similar episodes
from which they have recovered. In the acute setting migraine is a
diagnosis of exclusion.
The headache in meningitis is not typically of sudden onset but
given the dangers of missing the diagnosis it is a condition that
should always be considered in the differential diagnosis of a patient
presenting with a severe headache.
Meningitis may result from bacterial, viral, or less commonly
fungal or tuberculous infection. The diagnosis is suggested by the
complaint of a headache in association with fever and neck stiffness,
which is found in two-thirds of patients with bacterial meningitis.
In addition, signs of meningeal irritation (see Table 8.1) should also
be sought but may be absent early in the course of the illness. A high
index of suspicion therefore needs to be maintained, particularly in
the elderly or immunocompromised patient.
Fletcher_C008.indd 31
Figure 8.2 CT scan of an intracerebral metastatic neoplasm.
In contrast, the absence of fever, neck stiffness and change in
mental state reliably excludes meningitis.
Space-occupying lesions
It is uncommon for intracranial mass lesions to present with
sudden severe headache. Such lesions only cause pain once they are
large enough to cause traction on intracranial vessels or invade sensitive structures such as the dura. As a result, such lesions will often
present with other features before headache becomes prominent.
The headache caused by space-occupying lesions is usually the
result of raised intracranial pressure. Typically this headache will
be of gradual onset, progressively severe, worse in the morning,
and aggravated by activities which raise intracranial pressure, for
example coughing or straining.
A careful neurological examination may reveal subtle abnormalities of which the patient is unaware. The presence of papilloedma
supports the diagnosis but its absence does not rule it out.
Sudden onset of headache may occur in a patient with a
space-occupying lesion if there is haemorrhage into a tumour (see
Figure 8.2).
Other causes of headache not suggested
by the history
Tension headache
It is estimated that 80% of people will experience a tension headache at some time during their life. In contrast to migraine, the
headache may last up to 7 days.
The key features of tension headache are shown in Box 8.3 and
these headaches tend to be precipitated by stress.
5/13/2009 12:08:19 PM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Differentiating between migraine and tension headaches can
be difficult and the two may coexist in the same patient. The nonpulsating quality and lack of aggravation by physical activity may
usefully distinguish between the two. However, in the acute setting
tension headache is not usually included in the differential diagnosis of acute severe headache as it is rarely of sudden onset.
Systemic illness
Severe infections such as pneumonia and pyelonephritis are a frequent cause of headache. Diagnosis in such patients is rarely difficult. As the headache is not of sudden onset, a careful history and
examination will identify the cause.
Dental and ENT disease
Pain in the head or face is a key feature in many dental and ENT
problems, e.g. sinusitis. Although the diagnosis may be apparent from the history, inspection of the mouth, pharynx and
Box 8.3 Features of tension headache
Headache has at least two of the following characteristics:
• bilateral location
• pressing/tightening (non-pulsating) quality
• mild or moderate intensity
• not aggravated by routine physical activity such as walking or
climbing stairs
And both of the following:
• no nausea or vomiting (anorexia may occur)
• no more than one of photophobia or phonophobia
tympanic membranes is required to exclude these as possible sources
of pain.
Temporal arteritis
Temporal arteritis typically presents with gradual onset of a constant band-like headache and tenderness over the temporal arteries.
It may also be associated with visual loss. Typically, patients will be
over 55 years of age and feel generally unwell. The erythrocyte sedimentation rate is usually markedly raised. Urgent treatment with
corticosteroids reduces the risk of visual loss.
Case history revisited
The history outlined by this woman suggests a number of possible
diagnoses. The patient has a history of migraine, but this headache
is clearly different to her usual migraine headache, so this is an
unlikely cause. The history of breast cancer raises the possibility of
a cerebral metastasis. Given the sudden onset of the headache and
its severity, haemorrhage into a metastasis or into the subarachnoid
space should be considered.
Her history of fever preceding the headache suggests that meningitis should be considered although the sudden onset of the headache makes this diagnosis less likely.
On examination the patient’s observations are normal. Her
temperature is 36.5°C, blood pressure 107/60 mmHg and pulse
rate 90 beats/minute.
Figure 8.3 Intracranial aneurysm before (a) and after coiling (b).
Fletcher_C008.indd 32
5/13/2009 12:08:21 PM
Acute Headache
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principal working diagnosis?
this should be delayed until 12 hours after onset of the headache,
when its sensitivity will be maximal. If subarachnoid haemorrhage
is not found, examination of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) should
also identify cases of meningitis. In addition, the measurement of
CSF pressure may also identify some uncommon diagnoses that
might otherwise be missed, such as venous sinus thrombosis or
spontaneous intracranial hypotension.
Principal working diagnosis – subarachnoid
Her neck was stiff but there is no other abnormality on
neurological examination. Examination of the fundi and tympanic
membranes is normal and there is no rash.
The sudden onset of headache and the finding of neck stiffness
suggest subarachnoid haemorrhage is the cause of her symptoms.
The next step will be to obtain a CT scan. In patients with subarachnoid haemorrhage this will be abnormal in around 95% of
cases if the scan is performed within the first 24 hours, but only
in 50% 1 week after onset of the headache. CT should also reliably
exclude the possibility of a space-occupying lesion.
If the CT scan is normal a lumbar puncture should be performed. When investigating possible subarachnoid haemorrhage
Fletcher_C008.indd 33
The patient underwent a CT scan which demonstrated a subarachnoid haemorrhage (see Figure 8.3a). She was referred urgently to a
neurosurgeon for further treatment. The causative aneurysm was
subsequently coiled (see Figure 8.3b).
Further reading
Dowson AJ. Your Questions Answered: Migraine and Other Headaches.
Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh, 2003.
Lance JW, Goadsby PJ. Mechanism and Management of Headache, Seventh
Edition. Elsevier, New York, 2005.
5/13/2009 12:08:25 PM
Acutely Painful Joint
Rachel Tattersall
A 45-year-old man presents with a painful, swollen knee. The
swelling began 3 days ago and has gradually increased. The knee
is now so painful, swollen and stiff that he is having difficulty
weight bearing and mobilising. There is no history of injury to the
knee and he is normally fit and well, taking no regular medication.
He has no past medical history of any significance. There is no
history of recent illness and no other dermatological or
rheumatological history. He does, however, have a weekly intake
of 60 units of alcohol. He works as a computer programmer and
is married with two teenage children. He visited Thailand
6 months ago on a family holiday. His mother has osteoarthritis
but there is no other significant family history.
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
There are many possible causes of an acutely inflamed joint.
Although the history must be comprehensive, key points are shown
in Box 9.1. Physical examination should be comprehensive, and
locomotor examination should start with the ‘GALS’ (Gait, Arms,
Legs, Spine) screen. This is a quick and easy to perform screen of
all the joints thereby identifying abnormal joints for closer examination and ensuring undeclared joint abnormalities do not go
unnoticed. Once an abnormal joint is identified its appearance
Box 9.1 Key history points in the patient with an acutely
inflamed joint
Previous joint problems/other current joint problems
Recent illness (gastric upset, sexually acquired infection)
Exposure to infection such as drug misuse or dental work
Skin rash
Trauma/penetrating injury
Alcohol intake/family history of gout/dietary history/hypertension
Job/recent travel/pets
Risk factors for HIV
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
should be documented and then palpated to elicit warmth,
tenderness and swelling. The range of movement should then be
assessed. If in doubt – look, feel, move!
Septic arthritis
Patients with a short history of a hot, swollen and tender joint (or
joints) with restriction of movement should be considered to have
septic arthritis until proven otherwise. Septic arthritis is a medical
emergency because untreated, joint destruction and systemic sepsis
may follow. In adults, septic arthritis is usually monoarticular but
polyarticular presentations are possible. Examination signs may
include features of systemic infection such as fever, rashes, or even
septic shock. Septic arthritis is usually very painful and any movement of the infected joint is often agonising.
Bacterial invasion of the synovial space most commonly follows
haematogenous spread and the commonest infecting organism is
Staphylococcus aureus. Direct innoculation of bacteria to the joint
is also possible and a history of local trauma or penetrating injury
should always be sought. Within 48 hours of bacterial invasion of
the synovial space there is dramatic neutrophil infiltration, vascular
congestion and cellular proliferation leading to purulent effusion
and the cytokine-induced release of proteolytic enzymes. In as little
as 10 days cartilage and bone destruction develop, so in making the
diagnosis time is of the essence. The history should focus on risk
factors for septic arthritis. These are the extremes of the age spectrum, chronic disease such as diabetes mellitus and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, prosthetic joints, pre-existing
inflammatory arthritis and procedures leading to bacteraemia such
as dental treatment or injecting drug use. Immunocompromise
also predisposes to infection, and a full medication history is
Gonococcal arthritis results from haematogenous spread of
Neisseria gonococcus from primary sexually acquired mucosal
infection. It is uncommon in developed countries but needs
recognition, so a sexual history should be taken. Other specific infections such as TB may cause septic arthritis and careful
assessment of risk factors and exposure is important.
Crystal arthropathy – gout and pseudogout
Deposition of crystals in articular tissue causes inflammatory
arthritis (see Figure 9.1). Gout results from the deposition of
monosodium urate (MSU) crystals and pseudogout from calcium
Fletcher_C009.indd 34
5/13/2009 10:14:26 AM
Acutely Painful Joint
In patients with increased tendency to bleed, such as those on
warfarin or with haemophilia, even minor trauma can cause
haemarthrosis. Blood in the articular space is very irritant and
will cause intense pain such that the joint is often held immobile.
A history of injury should be taken.
Figure 9.1 Gout crystals. By kind permission of Dr Rod Amos.
Reactive arthritis
Reactive arthritis (ReA) develops in genetically predisposed people
exposed to a triggering infection although the precise pathogenesis
is not understood. Most commonly the infective agent has affected
the digestive tract (e.g. Campylobacter) or the urogenital tract
(e.g. Chlamydia trachomatis) but there are multiple other possible
organisms and sites of infection. A history of recent illness or infection may therefore point to this diagnosis.
ReA most commonly affects healthy young adults and there
is a period of incubation of up to a month after initial infection.
The arthritis which develops is sterile, peripheral, asymmetric and
oligoarticular and lies on a spectrum from mild to very disabling.
It is frequently associated with extra-articular features such as
acute iritis, enthesitis such as achilles tendonitis and urethritis or
cervicitis. Good history taking, including a detailed sexual history,
is therefore the cornerstone in recognising ReA.
First presentation of a subsequent polyarthritis
Any inflammatory arthritis (for example rheumatoid arthritis or
spondyloarthropathy) or connective tissue disease such as systemic
lupus erythematosus may initially present with a single swollen
joint and is beyond the scope of this chapter.
Figure 9.2 X-ray showing chondrocalcinosis of the knee. By kind permission
of Dr John Winfield.
pyrophosphate dihydrate (CPPD) crystals (see Figure 9.2). Both are
more common in previously damaged (e.g. osteoarthritic) joints .
Gout is the commonest form of inflammatory arthritis in men
over 40. Hyperuricaemia (usually caused by renal under-excretion)
is the main risk factor, although most people with hyperuricaemia
will not develop gout and acute gout can occur with normal serum
urate levels. Other risk factors include hypertension, family history,
centripetal obesity, alcohol excess, purine excess (dietary or secondary to increased purine turnover, e.g. myeloproliferative disease)
and chronic kidney disease.
Classical gout presents in the early hours of the morning with
a monoarthritis affecting the lower limb – 70% are affected in the
first metatarsophalangeal joint but knee, ankle and instep are commonly affected. Useful additional clues include typical history, joint
erythema and hyperuricaemia. Classical gouty tophi are a feature
of chronic hyperuricaemia, but provide a useful clue if discovered.
The pain of gout is often excruciating, and in acute attacks, patients
are usually unable to bear the slightest touch.
CPPD arthritis presents acutely as monoarticular or polyarticular
pain and swelling, commonly involving knees, wrists and metacarpophalangeal joints (especially 2nd and 3rd). Distinguishing this
from septic arthritis or gout can be difficult.
Fletcher_C009.indd 35
Other causes of an acutely swollen joint not
suggested by the history
There are uncommon causes of an acutely swollen joint which
should be clarified by history and examination and include
tumours, rare inflammatory monoarthritis such as pigmented
villo-nodular synovitis and infections such as Lyme disease,
brucellosis and acute HIV infection. In the former causes, the history will usually be more protracted, and in the latter travel, social
or occupational clues will help.
Case history revisited
The acute onset of swelling and pain in a large joint makes septic
arthritis or crystal arthropathy most likely. His high alcohol intake
points towards gout but septic arthritis must remain an important
diagnosis of exclusion. The absence of trauma makes haemarthrosis very unlikely. Although there is a history of travel to Thailand,
reactive arthritis is unlikely in this case because of the absence of
other systemic symptoms. A first presentation of a subsequent polyarthritis cannot be discounted altogether from the history.
Apart from obvious pain in his knee, this man looks well. His
temperature is 36.8°C, pulse 80 beats/minute, and blood pressure
148/94 mmHg. He cannot bear touch to his affected knee, which is
5/13/2009 10:14:27 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Figure 9.3 Swollen right knee. By kind permission of Dr John Winfield.
Figure 9.4 Injection of the knee. By kind permission of Dr Kelsey Jordan.
red and swollen with a moderate effusion (see Figure 9.3). The rest
of his joints and physical examination are normal.
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principal working diagnosis?
Principal working diagnosis – gout
Although gout is now the most likely diagnosis, septic arthritis
should still be considered. The diagnosis of septic arthritis hinges
on urgent aspiration of infected synovial fluid with prompt culture and close liaison with microbiology colleagues (see Figure 9.4).
Aspiration should be an aseptic, ‘no touch’ technique. Bacterial yield
is improved if synovial fluid is collected into blood culture bottles.
Blood cultures should also be taken and estimation of C-reactive
protein (CRP) is useful in monitoring subsequent response to
Microscopic examination of aspirated joint fluid also conveniently provides an opportunity to look for crystals. This analysis
needs to be prompt as CPPD crystals become disrupted if left in
sample jars for even a few hours.
X-rays may be very helpful where the appearance of linear or
stippled calcification in articular cartilage or menisci (chondrocalcinosis) is highly suggestive of CPPD arthritis. In many cases of
acute arthritis, however, the X-rays are normal.
Supporting investigations may include full blood count,
biochemical parameters (including uric acid), viral screens and
genitourinary screening depending on the clinical context.
Fletcher_C009.indd 36
This man had a mildly raised white cell count and CRP. His
knee was aspirated to dryness which produced considerable pain
relief. The fluid was yellow and turbid and was sent for urgent
microscopy and Gram staining. There were a large number of
neutrophils but no organisms. Urate crystals were demonstrated
in the synovial fluid aspirate and there was no subsequent growth
on microbiological culture. He was given a diagnosis of gout and
improved dramatically with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory
drugs. He adjusted his alcohol intake accordingly.
Further reading
Bardin T. Gonococcal arthritis. Best Practice and Research Clinical
Rheumatology 2003; 17:201–208.
Coakley G, Mathews C, Field M, Jones A et al. BSR & BHPR, BOA, RCGP and
BSAC guidelines for management of the hot swollen joint in adults.
Rheumatology 2006; 45:1039–1041.
Doherty M, Dacre J, Dieppe P, Snaith M. The ‘GALS’ locomotor system.
Annals of Rheumatic Disease 1992; 51:1165–1169.
Khan MA. Update on spondyloarthropathies. Annals of Internal Medicine
2002; 136:896–907.
Kherani R, Shojania K. Septic arthritis in patients with pre-existing inflammatory arthritis. Canadian Medical Journal 2007; 176:1605–1608.
Underwood M. Diagnosis and management of gout. British Medical Journal
2006; 332:1315–1319.
5/13/2009 10:14:34 AM
Chest Pain – Pleuritic
Claire Gardner and Kevin Jones
A 70-year-old lady presents with right-sided chest pain. The pain is
sharp in nature and worse on deep inspiration. It is sometimes
worse on movement and she had partial relief with co-codamol at
home. Prior to going to bed yesterday evening she had felt
perfectly well, although 1 week before then she had suffered with
cough, green sputum and wheeze which her GP had treated with
a course of amoxicillin. Today she feels hot and cold and has
noticed some streaks of blood in her sputum. This prompted her
to attend hospital. She had a total hip replacement 2 weeks ago
and was discharged from hospital 1 week ago. Her leg is swollen
after her surgery. She remembers having a minor injury 5 days ago
when she bumped her right side on a chair. She has a past history
of mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD),
osteoarthritis and hypertension. She takes amlodipine 10 mg daily,
Seretide inhaler 250 µg two puffs twice daily, and salbutamol
inhaler 100 µg as required. She has no allergies. She stopped
smoking 10 years ago and has a 20 pack-year history. She lives
with her husband and is normally independent. She does not drink
alcohol. Her usual exercise tolerance is approximately 500 metres,
but this is now limited to 50 metres over the last 3 days due to
Pneumonia is one of the commonest causes of pleuritic chest pain.
The definition of pneumonia includes symptoms and signs of a
respiratory infection and new chest radiographic shadowing consistent with consolidation (see Figure 10.1). Supportive features in the
history are cough, yellow, green or brown sputum, fever, malaise,
Table 10.1 Causes of pleuritic chest pain.
Pulmonary embolism
Musculoskeletal chest pain
Autoimmune diseases
Myocardial infarction
Aortic dissection
Oesophageal rupture
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
Pleurisy is caused by irritation of the parietal pleura as an injured
or infected lung rubs against it. There are many causes of pleuritic
chest pain (see Table 10.1). It is important to take a careful history to
determine the speed of onset of the pain and the presence of accompanying symptoms such as cough, sputum, haemoptysis, fever,
myalgia, and especially breathlessness. Pleuritic pain can change a
patient’s breathing pattern but it is imperative to try and establish
if the patient truly feels breathless and if the breathlessness came
on at the same time as the pain. It is also important to determine
if the pain is made worse by movement or position and if it is
accompanied by tenderness.
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
Figure 10.1 X-ray showing right lower lobe pneumonia.
Fletcher_C010.indd 37
5/13/2009 10:17:10 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
headache, and a past medical history of conditions predisposing
to lower respiratory tract infections, such as COPD, immunocompromise, or alcoholism. It is important to ask about travel
(for Legionella and rarer tropical causes) and any contacts.
Breathlessness is usually a feature, but may be less obvious when
fit adults with lots of respiratory reserve have a small area of
infected lung.
Focal examination signs that support a diagnosis of pneumonia
include dull percussion note, bronchial breathing, increased vocal
resonance, crackles and pleural rub at the area of consolidation.
The commonest organism responsible for pneumonia in the
UK is Streptococcus pneumoniae (in about 60%). This classically causes rusty brown sputum, often flecked with blood. Other
cases are made up of Haemophilus influenzae, Staphylococcus
aureus, Mycoplasma pneumoniae, Legionella pneumophila, and
rarer organisms.
Pulmonary embolism (PE)
Pleuritic chest pain with PE is due to pulmonary infarction. This
is usually caused by an acute small or medium embolism. Patients
classically present with pleuritic chest pain, breathlessness and haemoptysis. Massive PE may present differently with syncope, central
chest pain and severe dyspnoea.
PE should be considered as a possible diagnosis in almost all
patients with pleuritic chest pain and is considered one of the
most underdiagnosed conditions in acute medicine. Risk factors for PE are listed in Box 10.1. These are usually combined in a
pre-test probability score (Wells) to guide further investigation (see
Table 10.2).
Recent surgery
Previous DVT/PE
Combined oral contraceptive pill/HRT
Nephrotic syndrome
Long flight/car journey
Exacerbation of asthma or COPD
Patients with airways disease can develop exacerbations after
bacterial or viral lower respiratory tract infections. They will have
cough, increased expectoration of sputum, breathlessness and
wheeze. The chest radiograph may be normal. Pleuritic pain may
be due to co-existent pleurisy or due to musculoskeletal pain from
the increased respiration and coughing which accompanies the
In pericarditis the pain is typically pleuritic but usually
retrosternal and positional. It is worse when lying down and
relieved by leaning forward. There may be characteristic ECG
changes (see Figure 10.2). The chest radiograph will be normal
unless a pericardial effusion causes enlargement of the cardiac
Table 10.2 Wells score.
Clinical characteristic
Clinical signs/symptoms DVT
Heart rate >100
Previous DVT/PE
PE more likely than alternative
Low probability (score ≤ 4). High probability (score >4).
Fletcher_C010.indd 38
Musculoskeletal chest pain
Musculoskeletal chest pain is a possibility if there is a history of
injury and if the pain appears to be related to movement. This is
more difficult to establish than it sounds because movement of the
thoracic cage can reproduce pain caused by an inflamed or infected
lung. Patients can feel short of breath with musculoskeletal chest
pain due to splinting of the chest and anxiety. A history of injury
is not always clear, and questions about recent lifting, twisting, and
sport are important.
Viral pleurisy
This is a common cause of pleuritic pain. It is often in the context of a viral type illness with upper respiratory tract symptoms,
myalgia and fever. There may be either a dry or productive cough.
Auscultation may reveal a pleural rub (which can sometimes be felt
as well as heard). The chest radiograph is usually normal although
occasionally there is a small pleural effusion.
Box 10.1 Risk factors for pulmonary embolism
The symptoms, signs and investigation results in pulmonary
infarction can be very similar to pneumonia. Pulmonary infarction
can cause peripheral consolidation with bronchial breathing and
crackles on auscultation.
Important signs indicating possible PE include: tachypnoea,
tachycardia, DVT, atrial fibrillation, and pleural rub. Signs of right
ventricular strain in keeping with a diagnosis of PE include a raised
JVP, right ventricular heave or loud second pulmonary heart sound
(P2). The latter are usually seen in massive or sub-massive PE rather
than small or moderate PE.
Spontaneous pneumothorax classically causes sudden onset of pleuritic chest pain and breathlessness in a previously healthy patient.
The commonest findings are reduced expansion and air-entry on
the side of the pneumothorax. The chest radiograph is diagnostic
(see Figure 10.3). It usually arises in young, slim males, or in those
with COPD, and is sometimes linked to an inherited condition such
as Ehlers–Danlos syndrome.
5/13/2009 10:17:11 AM
Chest Pain – Pleuritic
Figure 10.2 ECG in pericarditis.
Musculoskeletal chest pain is a possibility here due to the history of injury and in that the pain appears related to movement.
This should be kept as reserve differential diagnosis because PE and
pneumonia are more likely.
She has a good colour, temperature is 37.8°C, pulse 90 beats/minute,
blood pressure 130/75 mmHg, respiratory rate 20 breaths/minute,
and oxygen saturations 92% on air.
Pulse is regular, of normal volume and her jugular venous
pressure (JVP) is visible 2 cm above the suprasternal notch. The
apex beat is not displaced and there is no right ventricular heave.
Heart sounds are normal with no murmurs heard.
Chest examination reveals equal expansion, resonant percussion
note throughout and on auscultation there is a mild wheeze bilaterally. There is some chest wall tenderness but the pain is not clearly
reproducible. Her abdomen is soft and non-tender. There is bilateral
ankle oedema. The left leg is diffusely swollen but not red or tender.
Figure 10.3 Pneumothorax.
Case history revisited
On revisiting the case history the diagnosis is not immediately
obvious, and all of the conditions discussed are possible. The most
serious diagnosis to consider is pulmonary embolism. The fact that
the pain arose outside an immediate context of infective symptoms
and is associated with breathlessness means that pulmonary embolism still needs to be definitely excluded. There is also exposure to
possible hospital acquired infections.
This patient has a significant PE risk factor having had a total
hip replacement 2 weeks ago. The swollen leg may represent a
deep vein thrombosis (DVT) although after a total hip replacement the affected leg will usually be swollen anyway. Her Wells
score is 8.5 putting her in the high probability group. She has
symptoms and signs of a possible DVT (3), haemoptysis (1),
immobilization (1.5) and PE is more likely than the alternative
diagnosis (3).
Fletcher_C010.indd 39
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principal working diagnosis?
Principal working diagnosis – PE
This patient is tachypnoeic and hypoxic. There are no signs of consolidation and there are pointers toward possible DVT. Pneumonia and
musculoskeletal chest pain are both possible but less likely: the fever
keeps pneumonia as an important differential but this may also be
seen in PE. The wheeze is probably due to COPD; this may be exacerbated by infection. Wheeze can also sometimes be heard in PE.
There is some chest wall tenderness and musculoskeletal chest
pain remains a possibility but this patient has low oxygen saturations and an increased respiratory rate indicating lung pathology.
Musculoskeletal pain is a diagnosis of exclusion in this case. In
patients with suspected PE, chest pain reproduced by palpation is
not associated with a lower prevalence of PE and we should not be
misguided by chest wall tenderness in this case.
Patients with COPD may be chronically hypoxic and for some,
saturations of 92% on air are normal. However, this patient is normally independent, she only has mild COPD and she is breathless.
These saturations are very unlikely to be normal in her case.
5/13/2009 10:17:11 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Oxygen must be given via controlled delivery to maintain her
oxygen saturations ≥92%. Nebulised salbutamol and ipratropium
bromide should be given as she is wheezy.
Intravenous access should be obtained and blood tests requested:
full blood count should look particularly at the white cell count,
urea and electrolytes, and clotting screen. Blood cultures and
sputum for culture should be collected as this patient has a fever.
Arterial blood gases should be performed to look for hypoxia,
ideally while she is breathing room air if she is well enough. D-dimer
is not required as she has a high probability Wells score, but for low
probability this is a useful screening tool. An ECG may show signs
of pulmonary embolus (see Box 10.2, Figure 10.4).
She needs a chest X-ray to look for consolidation indicating
pneumonia. There may be signs of PE on the chest X-ray, such as a
small effusion, focal infiltrates, segmental collapse or raised hemidiaphragm but the most common finding is for it to be normal.
Investigation of PE begins with a Doppler ultrasound scan of the
deep veins of her swollen leg. If she has a DVT it can be assumed,
based on her symptoms, that she has a PE. If there is no DVT then
Box 10.2 Possible ECG signs of pulmonary embolus
Sinus tachycardia (most commonly)
Atrial fibrillation
Right bundle branch block
Right axis deviation
SI,QIII,TIII (S wave lead I, Q wave and inverted T in lead III)
T inversion in V1–V4
Figure 10.5 CTPA showing pulmonary embolus (arrows).
a computerised tomographic pulmonary angiogram (CTPA)
should be performed regardless of whether the chest X-ray shows
consolidation (see Figure 10.5). Her Wells score is high and it is
possible she has both PE and pneumonia.
This patient had a raised white cell count. Arterial blood gases
showed hypoxia with a normal pH and slightly low carbon
dioxide. Her ECG showed a sinus tachycardia and chest X-ray was
clear. Leg Doppler confirmed a DVT so CTPA was not needed.
The final diagnosis was PE secondary to recent orthopaedic
surgery. She was anticoagulated with low molecular weight
heparin and subsequently with warfarin.
Further reading
Figure 10.4 ECG showing right heart strain.
Fletcher_C010.indd 40
Boon NA, Colledge NR, Walker BR, Hunter JAA. Davidson’s Principles and
Practice of Medicine, 20th edition. Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh,
British Thoracic Society guidelines for the management of suspected acute
pulmonary embolism. Thorax 2003; 58: 470–483.
Kasper DL, Braunwald E, Hauser S. Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine,
16th edition. McGraw-Hill Medical Publishing, New York, 2005.
Warrell DA, Cox TM, Firth JD, Benz EJ Jr (Eds). Oxford Textbook of Medicine,
Fourth Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003.
West S, Chapman S, Robinson G, Stradling J. Oxford Handbook of Respiratory
Medicine, Fourth Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003.
5/13/2009 10:17:13 AM
Scott Davison
Table 11.1 Examples of how patients describe their dizziness.
A 55-year-old man presents with the abrupt onset of a spinning
sensation associated with vomiting, which has been present for
around 2 hours. He says he has never experienced anything like
this before. It began at rest, and he has no headache, deafness or
tinnitus. He has been reluctant to move his head or open his eyes
as these make his symptoms worse. He is married, a smoker,
drinks 56 units of alcohol/week and works as a HGV driver. He has
a history of hypertension, migraine, and irritable bowel syndrome
for which he takes the following drugs: atenolol, ramipril,
mebeverine, aspirin, simvastatin and naproxen as required.
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
When assessing a patient with dizziness clarification of the points
in Box 11.1 are important.
The first issue is to discriminate between different types of
dizziness, which are broadly, vertiginous and non-vertiginous.
Patients with vertigo, a specific complaint, often find it difficult to
clearly articulate their symptoms. Vertigo is a false perception of
movement. The sensation of vertigo results from unilateral damage
anywhere in the vestibular system. Table 11.1 provides examples of
how patients describes their dizziness. The questions in Box 11.2
may help patients describe the sensation experienced. The duration
of the vertigo is the single most important factor in elucidating the
cause of the vertigo (see Box 11.3).
Box 11.1 Important points to clarify when assessing a patient
with dizziness
A clear description of the dizziness
Its duration
Accompanying symptoms
Provoking factors
Previous episodes
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
Everything moving
As if really drunk
As if got off fairground ride
Things are at an angle
Passing out
Vision went grey
Box 11.2 Questions that may help the patient describe the
sensation experienced
1 Is it like you are about to fall over, or pass out?
2 Does it feel as if you have been spinning around, or as if you have
stood up too quickly?
3 Do you feel you may loose awareness of your surroundings, or do
they appear to be moving?
Box 11.3 The duration of nystagmus is the single most
important factor in elucidating the cause of the vertigo
Seconds – benign paroxysmal positional vertigo
Minutes to an hour – migraine/TIA
Several hours – Ménière’s disease/TIA
Several days – Vestibular neuritis/CVA/demyelination
As there is some overlap, further questions will be required to
help discriminate between the differing causes. Obviously, in the
acute presentation of recent onset, one cannot predict how long the
vertigo will last.
A focused history will elucidate any important associated symptoms which may help to refine the diagnosis. For instance, associated deafness and tinnitus suggest an otological cause, whereas
diplopia dysarthria and dysphagia point strongly to a neurological
disease. Table 11.2 gives some categories of dizziness and the likelihood of certain associated presenting symptoms. A vertiginous
patient will always want to keep their head still either sat up with
chin tilted forward, so as to limit stimulation of the lateral semicircular canals, or lying on the side of the unaffected ear.
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ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Table 11.2 Some categories of dizziness and the likelihood of certain associated presenting symptoms.
Chest pain or tightness
Acute deafness or pressure in ears
++ (unilateral)
+ (bilateral)
Greying or
loss of vision
Key: +++ Almost universal. ++ Very common. + Common. +/− May be present. − Unlikely.
It is always worth asking whether the patient has had vertigo
before, and if so, to describe previous episodes. Multiple episodes
point towards a diagnosis of Ménière’s disease, migraine, transient
ischaemic attack (TIA) or benign paroxysmal positional vertigo
(BPPV), rather than acute labyrinthitis, or vestibular neuronitis.
Taking the above into account, and the information provided in
this patient’s history, the differential diagnosis should include the
conditions below.
Acute unilateral peripheral vestibulopathy
(a.k.a. vestibular neuronitis)
The cause of this is unknown, but it remains the commonest cause
of the first episode of prolonged vertigo. Many different terms are
used to describe the syndrome of acute, apparently idiopathic,
unilateral vestibular failure but given that the pathology is unconfirmed, acute peripheral vestibulopathy (APV) would seem the
best term. The onset is spontaneous, associated with nausea and
vomiting, persisting for more than 24 hours, with ataxic gait,
horizontal nystagmus, with the fast phase towards the unaffected
ear, and the absence of hearing loss or tinnitus. Ear examination
and the Rinne’s and Weber’s tuning fork tests are typically normal
(see Box 11.4 and Figure 11.1).
By definition, APV must last over 24 hours, so at this stage of
assessment, it remains in the differential.
Ménière’s disease
This is due to episodic increase in pressure of the endolymphatic
fluid in the labyrinth and cochlea. The classical presentation is with
a prodrome of unilateral aural pressure/fullness, with subsequent
onset of vertigo, which lasts several hours and there is associated
unilateral deafness and tinnitus, lasting days and sometimes weeks.
Note that patients may only perceive their hearing loss as a ‘blocked
Fletcher_C011.indd 42
feeling’ in the ear. Furthermore, as it is usually low frequency loss,
it may not be noted at all. Initially there may be episodes of solitary vertigo, before the recurrent pattern of vertigo and hearing loss
becomes evident over time.
In the typical presentation, one would anticipate a bilateral
Rinne’s positive (i.e. normal) and Weber’s lateralising towards the
unaffected side (abnormal).
In this case, the absence of prior episodes and accompanying
otological symptoms (aural fullness/pressure, hearing loss and tinnitus) would be atypical for Ménière’s disease, though this attack
could be the first episode.
Focal migraine
This condition is under-diagnosed and is typified by the complaint
of recurrent unprovoked (i.e. not triggered by positional change)
vertigo lasting up to around an hour, without hearing loss or
tinnitus. A history or family history of any form of migraine,
especially focal, would favour this diagnosis. There may be triggers
such as menstruation (a drop in oestrogen), altered sleep pattern,
life event ‘stress’ or similar, that triggered the attack.
As the patient has migraine the diagnosis should be considered,
though the duration of the attack would be atypical.
Cerebellar TIA/stroke
This man has a number of risk factors for cerebral vascular
disease and a vascular cause for his symptoms should be considered. A careful history and examination is required to identify any
neurological deficit.
In the absence of associated neurological symptoms or signs such
as dysarthria, diplopia or ataxia, a vertebrobasilar vascular cause
is rather unlikely. Note, however that, if there is a short history of
transient bilateral hearing loss with each episode lasting minutes,
5/13/2009 10:19:11 AM
Box 11.4 Rinne’s and Weber’s tuning fork tests
Modified Rinne’s test (512 Hz tuning fork required – with baseplate
and ideally a quiet space)
1 Explain that you are going to place the fork in two positions and
you want the patient to tell you which is the loudest.
2 Lightly activate the fork, and place on the mastoid area for
around 3 seconds, with the vibrating axis of the fork vertical.
3 Next place the fork around 15 cm from the ear for a similar period,
with the vibrating axis in line with the external auditory meatus.
4 Do the same on the other ear.
Results and interpretation
1 Louder alongside ear/both ears: air conduction (AC), louder than
bone condition (BC). This is known as Rinne’s positive and is
normal. This excludes a significant conductive loss.
2 Louder on the mastoid: BC is louder than AC. This could be either:
• A true Rinne’s negative due to a conductive hearing loss in the
ipsilateral ear or
• False Rinne’s negative, when the ipsilateral ear has a severe
sensorineural deafness, but the patient responds to the sound
transmitting through the skull to the contralateral cochlea.
In order to discriminate, one can either repeat the Rinne’s test whilst
‘masking’ the contralateral ear – essentially ‘distracting’ that ear by
making circular rubbing movements over the tragus, see below
Weber’s test (512 Hz tuning fork required – with base plate, and
ideally a quiet space)
1 Explain that you are going to place the tuning fork on their head
and you want to know if the sound appears louder in one ear
than the other.
2 Moderately strongly activate the fork and place for 5 seconds on
the vertex, vibrating the axis in line with the ears.
Results and interpretation
1 Sound is central or patient equivocal: Weber’s normal.
Sound heard louder in one ear. Either the patient has a conductive
loss in the side to which the sound localised, or they have a
sensorineal loss in the contralateral side. The Rinne’s test carried out
beforehand should have already given you an idea, and allow you to
discern between these possibilities.
then this could be due to TIAs in this territory. Otological causes
of vertigo are invariably associated with horizontal nystagmus
whereas the absence of nystagmus or unusual forms of nystagmus,
e.g. vertical, point to a potential vascular cause.
Other causes of dizziness not suggested by the
also occur in the setting of chronic suppurative middle ear disease.
None of these symptoms are present in our man’s history.
This term should be reserved for where there is evidence of acute
otitis media and hearing loss accompanying the vertigo. Such
patients require admission to the ENT department.
Vestibular schwannoma /posterior fossa tumour
These conditions rarely present with isolated vertigo. The typical
presenting features are progressive unilateral hearing loss and/or
tinnitus. The slow growth of these tumours allows a process of central compensation to occur, which can manifest as a sensation of
vague imbalance, but not vertigo. Note, however, that very rarely
these tumours may present with acute hearing loss.
Case history revisited
Further questioning is required to help this man clearly articulate
the spinning sensation so there is no doubt that he is complaining of
vertigo. Ask about fullness in the ear as well as deafness, and confirm
there are no focal neurological symptoms such as dysarthria, diplopia, etc. The examination should specifically look for nystagmus, ear
pathology and focal neurology. Deafness and vestibular function
can be clinically assessed using the Weber’s, Rinne’s, Romberg’s and
head-thrust tests (see Boxes 11.3–11.5; Figures 11.2–11.4).
This man is sat still with his eyes closed. He is sweaty, with vomit
on his clothing. Observations show pulse 84/minute, regular, blood
pressure 146/82 mmHg.
He has no spontaneous nystagmus*, but there is subtle right-beating nystagmus on lateral gaze to the right. He is (reluctantly) able
to stand, with his eyes open and feet together. He falls to the left on
Romberg testing and is unable to complete the Unterberger test (see
Box 11.6 for explanation). The tympanic membranes are normal.
His speech is normal, there is no complaint of double vision on
assessing the cranial nerves or evidence of loss of co-ordination.
The remainder of the neurological examination is normal.
His tuning fork tests show Rinne’s positive bilaterally and Weber’s
central (i.e. they are normal). The head-thrust test is positive to the
left. This confirms the diagnosis of peripheral left-sided vestibular
failure and is against a ‘central’ cause such as stroke. This is because
the oculo-vestibular reflex remains intact in the latter, but is obviously
disrupted in acute peripheral vestibular failure (see Table 11.3).
Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo
This common condition describes brief vertigo of no longer than
1 minute and usually less than 20 seconds, provoked by change
in posture. Whilst the majority of such cases are idiopathic, some
follow head injury or labyrinthitis.
Perilymph fistula
This is thought to occur when the round window (not the tympanic
membrane) perforates. It usually is provoked when someone has
been straining, or diving, and also results in hearing loss. It may
Fletcher_C011.indd 43
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principal working diagnosis?
Principal working diagnosis – acute peripheral
Despite his risk factors for cerebral vascular disease, the absence
of any neurological symptoms or signs with the exception of
nystagmus all point to an otological cause for his symptoms.
5/13/2009 10:19:12 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Air conduction (AC) is louder than bone conduction (BC) Weber‘s central
Rinne‘s positive (i.e. normal)
Weber‘s central (normal)
BC is louder than AC. This is either (a) true Rinne‘s negative or (b) false Rinne‘s negative
True Rinne‘s negative
Conductive right loss
Weber‘s to the right
False Rinne‘s negative
Significant sensorineural loss on right
Weber‘s to the left
An alternative way to discriminate between true and false Rinne‘s negative is to mask the contralateral ear,
e.g. by occluding the external meatus by rubbing the tragus (tragal rub) in rapid circular movements (c)
Sound transmitted through skull to
contralateral ear (left)
Tragal rub produces sound which blocks the
left ear from appreciating the BC from the
right ear
Figure 11.1 Rinne’s and Weber’s tuning fork tests:
results and interpretation.
Table 11.3 Underlying causes of dizziness.
Clinical test
Head thrust
Able to stand
unaided, eyes open?
Unilateral APV
Positive (towards side of lesion)
Fixed, unidirectional, horizontal, suppressed by optic fixation
Cerebellar ischaemia
Often vertical, or multi-directional, spontaneous, not readily suppressed
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Box 11.5 The head-thrust test and the head impulse test
Head-thrust test (Figure 11.2)
Normal head-thrust test to the left (a and b)
Starting position (a) places subject’s head 30 degrees into cervical
flexion; eyes are focused on the target (examiner’s forehead). Head is
thrust rapidly, 10–20 degrees to the left (b). Upon stopping the head
thrust, the eyes are still on target and no corrective saccade (bringing
eyes back to target) is observed.
Abnormal head trust test to the right (c–e)
Starting position as before (c). Head is thrust rapidly to the right, the
eyes lose their target and move with the head (d). The subject must
make a corrective saccade (small arrows) to bring the eyes back to
target (e). In this case, the right vestibular-ocular reflex is abnormal.
Repeat three times to each side, randomly; a majority (i.e. two or
more) abnormal response is taken as pathological.
The head impulse test (Figure 11.3)
The examiner turns the patient’s head as rapidly as possible about
15 degrees to one side and observes the ability of the patient
to keep fixating on a distant target. The patient illustrated has a
right peripheral vestibular lesion with a severe loss of right lateral
semicircular canal function. While the examiner turns the patient’s
head toward the normal left side (top row) the patient is able
to keep fixating on target. By contrast, when the examiner turns the
patient’s head to the right the vestibulo-ocular reflex fails and
the patient cannot keep fixating on target (e) so that she needs to
make a voluntary rapid eye movement – that is, a saccade, back
to target (f) after the head impulse has finished; this can be easily
observed by the examiner. It is essential that the head is turned as
rapidly as possible as otherwise smooth pursuit eye movements
will compensate for the head turn.
Figure 11.2 The head-thrust test.
Figure 11.3 The head-impulse test.
Fletcher_C011.indd 45
(f )
5/13/2009 10:19:12 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Box 11.6 The Romberg test and the Unterberger test
Romberg test (Figure 11.4)
This test is classically one of joint position sense, but can also test the
vestibular system (vestibulo-spinal reflex). Stand close to the subject so
that in the event of a fall you are able to catch them. Reassure them
that you are there. An assistant may be required for large patients.
The patient stands feet together, arms by sides with eyes open. If they
cannot complete this test, they cannot proceed to the Romberg. Next,
ask them to close their eyes.
Results and interpretation
1 Cannot stand feet together with eyes open (unable to undertake
Romberg): this usually indicates severe loss of cerebellar function.
2 Stands with eyes open and closed: ‘Romberg negative’ – normal.
3 Stands with eyes open, sways significantly (or falls) with eyes
closed: ‘Romberg positive’ – this indicates that the patient is
relying heavily on their visual input in order to maintain balance.
The following are possibilities: (a) Problem with proprioceptive
information reaching the cerebellum either through peripheral
neuropathy in the lower limbs, or dorsal column lesions. (b)
Vestibular lesion, in which case the patient tends to fall consistently
towards the pathological side. These two can be discriminated by
testing sensory modalities in the lower limbs.
4 Stands with eyes open, sways fore and aft with eyes closed: this is
typical of mild (chronic) cerebellar pathology.
Unterberger test (‘stepping test’) (Figure 11.5)
The patient is asked to ‘walk’ on the spot, for 50 steps or 30 seconds,
with eyes closed, hands clasped and arms extended. Ensure there
is adequate room and be ready to catch the patient. It is useful to
align the patient with an object to help you discern the degree of
movement. Avoid pointing the patient at bright light sources, as
these may guide the patient. If the patient has locomotor problems/
asymmetry of gait, these preclude testing. It is useful to think of the
hands of a clock face, with ‘5-past’ equating to 30 degrees, ‘10-past’,
60 degrees, etc.
Results and interpretation
1 Rotates <30 degrees: normal (Figure 11.5b).
2 Rotates 30–45 degrees: borderline. Suggest rotate the patient
180 degrees and repeat, looking for consistency. Vestibular lesion
on the ipsilateral side.
3 Rotates >45 degrees: abnormal. Turns to the pathological side
(Figure 11.5c).
Figure 11.4 The Romberg test.
Figure 11.5 The Unterberger test. (a) Starting position. (b) Normal (turning <30 degrees after 50 steps). (c) Abnormal (turns >45 degrees to the left)
(suggests relative hypofunction of the left vestibular system, e.g. in acute peripheral vestibulopathy).
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A vestibular sedative should be administered, preferably by mouth,
but a parenteral route will often be required, e.g. prochlorperazine
12.5 mg i.m. An alternative for those with a history of previous
dystonic reactions, or other contraindications, would be diazepam,
which may be administered rectally, when the oral route is not possible (10–20 mg 12-hourly) when necessary. It may be given slowly
i.v. (5–10 mg, at 5 mg/minute) but be aware of the potential for
respiratory depression, and close supervision and pulse oximetry
should be used.
Patients who do not respond to treatment or those who live
alone may require hospital admission. Those managed at home
should be issued with a small supply of vestibular sedatives, such as
prochlorperazine 5 mg three times a day. It is very important that
patients do not use vestibular sedatives for a protracted period, as
this appears to hinder the central compensating mechanisms that
allow them recovery. They should be advised to stop, or weaned off
them after 1 week. Follow up should be arranged through the local
ENT/Audiovestibular Medicine Clinic.
Most patients make a full symptomatic recovery from unilateral
APV, even though asymmetry of vestibular function may be evident on clinical testing. In those other cases, a sense of disequilibrium (intolerance of movement causing momentary imbalance)
may arise and loss of confidence occur where the visual cues are
reduced, such as in the dark, or when making rapid movements,
e.g. turning the head before crossing the road. In such cases,
vestibular rehabilitation exercises should be deployed.
This man responded to treatment with prochlorperazine and was
managed at home. Given his occupation was HGV driving he was
advised not to go back to work for at the very least a week, and to
seek the advice of his GP as to whether he is fit to return thereafter.
Fletcher_C011.indd 47
* Note that nystagmus of otological origin is easily suppressed by optic fixation. Thus it may only be detected if this is removed by using specialised
Frenzel glasses which have ‘jamjar-bottom’ type lenses through which it is
impossible to focus. Alternatively moving the patient to a darkened room,
or covering one eye, whilst undertaking fundoscopy on the other, will also
unmask it.
Further reading
Axford J, O’Callaghan C. Medicine, Second Edition. Blackwell Publishing,
Oxford, 2004.
Knot A, Polmear A. Practical General Practice: Guidelines for Effective Clinical
Management, Fourth Edition. Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 2004.
Ramrakha P, Moore K. Oxford Handbook of Acute Medicine, Second Edition.
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004.
Simon C, Everitt H, Kendrick T. Oxford Handbook of General Practice, Second
Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002.
Tintinalli J, Kelen G, Stapczynski S, et al. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive
Study Guide, Sixth Edition. McGraw-Hill, New York, 2003.
Wyatt JP, Illingworth R, Graham C, et al. Oxford Handbook of Emergency
Medicine, Third Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
5/13/2009 10:19:21 AM
C H A P T E R 12
The Intoxicated Patient
Sue Croft
A 35-year-old man presents with confusion, blood around his
mouth and a cut across his forehead. He thinks that he fell over
and banged his head the previous evening after drinking 2 litres of
vodka (i.e. 80 units of alcohol – see Table 12.1). He woke up this
morning on the floor in his flat and cannot recall any other events.
It is difficult to elicit whether he lost consciousness though he has
vomited twice. On further questioning he tells you that he drinks
approximately 2 litres of vodka every day and that he has ‘numb
feet’ which a specialist has attributed to the alcohol. He denies
any other illnesses or medication.
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
There are a number of potential causes for his condition which
relate either to the acute or chronic abuse of alcohol.
Normally plasma glucose level is maintained between 3.6 and
5.8 mmol/l. Plasma glucose levels of less than 3 mmol/l cause overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system and neuroglycopenia
(hypoglycaemic effect on the brain). These produce symptoms
described in the clinical scenario and often mimic alcohol withdrawal or intoxication (see Table 12.3).
Hypoglycaemia is often associated with diabetes and its
treatments but is also associated with excessive alcohol intake in
non-diabetics. It is thought that alcohol causes redistribution of
pancreatic blood flow causing increased insulin production.
Post-ictal state
The post-ictal state is defined as the state of altered consciousness
occurring immediately after a seizure. It lasts between 5 minutes
and several hours and is characterised by drowsiness, confusion,
nausea, hypertension, headache or migraine and other disorienting symptoms. In addition, emergence from this period is often
accompanied by amnesia or other memory defects. It is during this
period that the brain recovers from the ‘trauma’ of the seizure.
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
Table 12.1 Alcohol content of some common beverages.
Beverage type
Quantity (ml)
Alcohol content (units)
568 (1 pint)
Cider (regular)
568 (1 pint)
Wine (12% ABV)
175 (1 medium glass)
275 (1 bottle)
Vodka, whisky, gin
25 (1 pub measure)
Port, sherry, martini
50 (1 pub measure)
Box 12.1 Alcohol
The euphoric effect of alcohol from fermented berries has been
recognised for thousands of years. Today, drinking alcohol is a
popular social activity. Regular consumption of small amounts of
alcohol provides some health benefits. There is evidence that it
protects against ischaemic heart disease and may also offer some
protection against ischaemic stroke, gallstones and reduce the risk
of type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
The UK government recommend that:
• Men should drink no more than 21 units of alcohol per week (and
no more than four units in any one day).
• Women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week
(and no more than three units in any one day).
In the UK, over 9 million people drink more than the recommended
amounts, at levels which put their health at risk. High levels of
alcohol consumption lead to physical, psychological and social
problems (see Table 12.2). Alcohol causes nearly 10% of all ill health
and premature death in Europe.
Excessive alcohol ingestion lowers the seizure threshold,
making those with epilepsy more likely to fit. It can also cause
seizures in non-epileptic individuals, due to acute intoxication or
alcohol withdrawal.
Acute alcohol withdrawal
Symptoms and signs of alcohol withdrawal usually occur in those
who have abused alcohol on a daily basis for at least 3 months,
or those who have consumed large quantities for at least a week.
Fletcher_C012.indd 48
5/13/2009 10:21:00 AM
The Intoxicated Patient
Table 12.2 Medical problems related to alcohol.
Fatty infiltration
Alcoholic hepatitis
Liver failure
Liver cancer
Upper GI tract
Reflux oesophagitis
Mallory – Weiss tear
Oesophageal cancer
Peptic ulcers
Acute intoxication
Persistent damage
Korsakoff’s syndrome
Wernicke’s encephalopathy
Cerebellar degeneration
Cardiovascular/ Respiratory
Atrial fibrillation
Aspiration pneumonia
Anxiety disorders
Marijuana addiction
Cocaine addiction
Table 12.3 Symptoms of hypoglycaemia.
Sympathetic overactivity
Slurred speech
Focal neurological defects (stroke-like
Table 12.4 Alcohol withdrawal symptoms and signs.
Timing of last alcohol
Within 24 hours
Tremulousness (shakes)
24–36 hours
>48 hours
‘Delirium tremens’
They can start as soon as 8–12 hours after the most recent alcohol ingestion. The symptoms are usually relieved by drinking
more alcohol and vary across a wide spectrum from mild nausea
and minor tremulousness through to life-threatening seizures and
delirium tremens (see Table 12.4).
Hallucinations occur in approximately 25% of patients withdrawing from alcohol. Symptoms consist of predominantly visual
and tactile hallucinations. In the early stage, the patients recognise
Fletcher_C012.indd 49
Haemorrhage – subarachnoid,
traumatic subdural
hallucinations. However, in the advanced stage, these hallucinations
are perceived as real and may provoke extreme fear and anxiety.
The patient can be seen pulling at imaginary objects, clothing, and
sheets, for example.
Seizures occur in 23–33% of patients with significant alcohol
withdrawal. They are usually brief, generalised, tonic-clonic
without an aura. Most seizures terminate spontaneously or are
easily controlled with a benzodiazepine.
Delirium tremens occurs in 5% of individuals withdrawing from
alcohol within 24–72 hours after last ingestion. It is characterised
by altered mental status – disorientation, confusion, delusions and
severe agitation. There is associated fever, sweating and tachycardia.
Untreated it has a mortality of 15% from arrhythmias (secondary
to acidosis, electrolyte disturbance) and intercurrent illness.
Head injury causing intracranial pathology
Head injuries are often associated with excessive alcohol.
In fact, alcohol use is thought to be a contributing factor in
50% of all adults with traumatic brain injuries. Excessive
alcohol increases both the likelihood of injury and the seriousness
of injury.
Chronic excessive alcohol use may cause decreased platelets and
impaired clotting factor production by the liver. These patients
are more likely to suffer from an intracranial haematoma from
apparently minimal trauma and must be managed with care.
Symptoms and signs of serious head injury may occur
immediately or may develop over hours after the injury. Some
symptoms of head injury, such as amnesia, decreased conscious
level and vomiting can be mistakenly attributed to alcohol excess
and these patients must be assessed and investigated/observed
as appropriate.
NICE have issued guidance as to which patients with head injury
need urgent CT imaging, i.e. within 1 hour (see Box 12.2).
5/13/2009 10:21:01 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Acute thiamine deficiency
Chronic alcohol use, particularly when associated with
malnutrition, can cause vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency.
Thiamine deficiency causes damage to the mamillary bodies,
cranial nerve nuclei, thalamus and cerebellum, termed Wernicke’s
encephalopathy, a triad of:
1 Encephalopathy (disorientation, agitation, indifference and
inattentiveness, short term memory loss)
2 Occulomotor disturbance (nystagmus, lateral rectus palsy)
3 Ataxic gait
To diagnose Wernicke’s encephalopathy, however, it is not necessary
to have all three components present.
To protect against Wernicke’s encephalopathy intravenous
thiamine should be administered to any patient who is confused,
with a history of alcohol abuse. If the blood sugar is also low, it
is important to administer glucose with the thiamine treatment.
If Wernicke’s encephalopathy is not treated the confusion is liable
to progress to stupor or death.
Korsakoff ’s psychosis is a late neuropsychiatric manifestation
of Wernicke’s encephalopathy. It is characterised by confusion,
confabulation and amnesia (anterograde and retrograde). The
memory problems associated with Korsakoff ’s syndrome are largely
Box 12.2 NICE guidelines – indications for urgent CT head scan
in head injuries.
• GCS <13 on initial assessment in the Emergency Department
• GCS <15 when assessed in the Emergency Department 2 hours
post injury
• Suspected open or depressed skull fracture
• Any sign of basal skull fracture – haemotympanum, ‘panda’
eyes, cerebrospinal fluid leakage from ears or nose, Battle’s sign
(bruising to the mastoid area)
Post-traumatic seizure
Focal neurological defect
>1 episode of vomiting
Amnesia or loss of consciousness and coagulopathy
Table 12.5 Effects of acute alcohol ingestion.
Overall improvement in mood, becoming more self-confident
and daring. Attention span shortens and judgement becomes
Sleepiness, difficulty understanding or remembering things.
Reactions slow and body movements become uncoordinated
Confusion Profound confusion, disorientation, heightened emotional
state – aggression, withdrawal or overly affectionate. Nausea
and vomiting
GCS fluctuates between 3 and 13
GCS 3/15, pupil reflexes to light diminished, pulse and
respiratory rate lowers
Acute alcohol intoxication
Alcohol affects the brain like an anaesthetic. The effects of alcohol
depend on the amount ingested (see Table 12.5).
Measuring the serum alcohol level has limited use – it confirms
approximately how much alcohol has been ingested but does not
exclude other important causes which may co-exist.
This diagnosis is not suggested by the history.
Alcoholic ketosis
This is an acute metabolic acidosis that typically occurs in people
who chronically abuse alcohol and have a recent history of binge
drinking, little or no food intake, and persistent vomiting.
Patients typically present with nausea, vomiting and abdominal
pain. They are usually hypotensive, tachycardic and tachypnoeic
with the fruity odour of ketones present on their breath. They
are usually alert and lucid, but may have mild confusion.
Investigations show a raised anion gap metabolic acidosis, with
normal lactate and raised serum and urine ketone levels.
Systemic infections
People with chronic alcohol dependence are relatively immunocompromised, malnourished and more commonly exposed
to infectious agents (e.g. tuberculosis) than others. Infections,
in particular of the nervous system, e.g. meningitis, encephalitis,
can present with non-specific confusion and vomiting.
Case history revisited
Revisiting the case, the diagnosis is not immediately obvious. This
man regularly drinks excessive amounts of alcohol and presents
more than 12 hours after ingesting a large amount of alcohol. This
late presentation would not be typical for a presentation of acute
alcohol intoxication.
On examination, his Glasgow Coma Score (GCS) is 14/15 (E4,
M6, V4) – he is confused and disorientated to time and person.
His observations are: blood pressure 160/100 mmHg, pulse
120 beats/minute, respiratory rate 20 breaths/minute and blood
glucose (meter) 4.5 mmol. He appears sweaty and is irritable, but
allows you to perform a limited examination.
Fletcher_C012.indd 50
5/13/2009 10:21:01 AM
The Intoxicated Patient
He has a 4 cm cut to his forehead (partial thickness) with some
surrounding swelling, but no bogginess. He has no post-auricular bruising, haemotympanum, ‘panda’ eyes or evidence of a
cerebrospinal fluid leak.
He has slurred speech and a tremor at rest. Peripheral nervous
system examination reveals normal power, tone, reflexes and sensation but coordination is impaired with dysdiadokinesia. Nystagmus
is noted on eye examination, otherwise cranial nerves are intact.
Whilst you are examining him he appears to be becoming more
agitated. He is pulling at the sheets and grabbing out at the air
periodically and is becoming less cooperative.
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principal working diagnosis?
Principal working diagnosis – Acute alcohol
withdrawal – though one needs to exclude
intracranial pathology and acute thiamine
The most likely diagnosis for this patient is acute alcohol withdrawal. He is sweaty and tachycardic, has a tremor and is becoming
increasingly agitated. Pulling at his sheets and grabbing at the air
may be signs of the agitation or of visual hallucinations associated
with the withdrawal.
As previously discussed, it is very important not to miss head
injuries in this group of patients that are notoriously difficult to
assess. If there are signs of a head injury in these patients, brain
imaging should be considered.
This patient also has signs of possible encephalopathy and the eye
signs (nystagmus) could be related to the excess alcohol but could
also be a sign of Wernicke’s encephalopathy. He should be treated for
possible acute thiamine deficiency in addition to the withdrawal, as
this could progress if left untreated, with disastrous results.
This man requires close observation, intravenous thiamine,
treatment for alcohol withdrawal (lorazepam/chlordiazepoxide)
and a CT scan to exclude intracerebral pathology.
A blood glucose meter.
Further reading
Simon C, Everitt H, Kendrick T. Oxford Handbook of General Practice, Second
Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002.
Tintinalli J, Kelen G, Stapczynski S, et al. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive
Study Guide. Sixth Edition. McGraw-Hill, New York, 2003.
Wyatt JP, Illingworth R, Graham C, et al. Oxford Handbook of Emergency
Medicine, Third Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
His CT/head scan was normal and his agitation and confusion
settled with regular thiamine and chlordiazepoxide.
Fletcher_C012.indd 51
5/13/2009 10:21:03 AM
C H A P T E R 13
The Shocked Patient
Arun Chaudhuri
A 68-year-old woman rapidly develops severe breathlessness,
clamminess and agitation. She was well 2 days ago, when a
non-productive cough and a fever began. The symptoms have
progressed since then and become much worse today with
intermittent drowsiness and mottling of her skin. She has no chest
pain or wheeze, but her husband noticed she has not passed
much urine lately and that she looks much paler today with cold
hands and feet. She consulted her GP yesterday who thought she
had a viral upper respiratory tract infection. She took some
over-the-counter ‘flu’ remedy tablets this morning. She has a past
history of ischaemic heart disease, hypertension and type 2
diabetes mellitus. She has never smoked and there is no history of
chronic obstructive airway disease or bronchial asthma. Recently
she enjoyed a wonderful holiday in Greece and returned 3 days
ago. Her medication includes aspirin, bisoprolol, isosorbide
mononitrate SR, irbesartan, gliclazide and metformin. She is a
retired nurse and lives independently with her husband.
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
Shock arises from an inadequate flow of blood to organs and tissues:
the result is organ dysfunction (see Figure 13.1 and Box 13.1).
There are three broad types of shock (see Box 13.2) from which
four subtypes merit careful consideration in this case.
Septic shock
This form of shock is caused by the systemic response to a severe
infection. Identifying the systemic response (systemic inflammatory
response syndrome: SIRS) is extremely important so that appropriate management can be started early: all frontline healthcare professionals should be familiar with diagnosing sepsis (see Box 13.3).
Septic shock occurs most frequently in elderly (≥65 years),
immunocompromised patients, or those who have undergone an
invasive procedure in which there is high chance of bacteraemia.
Infection of the lungs, abdomen or urinary tract is most common. Micro-organisms such as Gram-positive and Gram-negative
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
bacteria, viruses, fungi, rickettsiae and protozoa can all produce
septic shock. Systemic infection and toxins released by the
infectious organisms produce interleukins leading to metabolic and
circulatory derangement.
Haemodynamic changes in septic shock occur in two characteristic patterns: early or hyperdynamic, and late or hypodynamic
septic shock. In hyperdynamic septic shock the extremities are
usually warm. Total oxygen delivery may be increased while oxygen extraction is reduced leading to cellular hypoxia. As sepsis
progresses, hypodynamic shock develops leading to vasoconstriction and reduced cardiac output. The patient usually becomes
markedly breathless, febrile and sweaty with cool, mottled and
often cyanotic peripheries. Multiple organ failure develops with a
striking increase in serum lactate. The mortality from septic shock
remains staggeringly high; approximately 35–40% of patients die
within 1 month of onset of septic shock.
Hypovolaemic shock
This most common form of shock, results either from the loss of
red blood cell mass and plasma from haemorrhage or from loss of
plasma volume alone arising from extravascular fluid sequestration
or gastrointestinal, urinary and insensible losses. Hypovolaemic
shock is usually diagnosed easily if the source of volume loss is
obvious, but the diagnosis can be extremely difficult if the source
is occult, such as into the gastrointestinal tract. In the latter case,
a history of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory use, dark sticky stool
(melaena), and upper abdominal pain is helpful. A rectal examination is mandatory to detect occult melaena.
Mild hypovolaemia (≤15% loss of the blood volume) produces mild tachycardia without any external signs, especially in a
supine resting adult patient. With moderate hypovolaemia (loss of
15–30% of blood volume) the patient will have significant postural
hypotension and tachycardia despite normal supine blood pressure,
although the pulse pressure will be reduced.
Classic signs of shock appear if hypovolaemia is severe (≥30%
loss of the blood volume). The patient develops marked tachycardia, supine hypotension, oliguria, and agitation or confusion,
progressing to coma. The transition from mild to severe hypovolaemic shock can be insidious or extremely rapid. If severe shock
is not reversed rapidly, especially in elderly patients and those
with multiple comorbidities, it can lead to ischaemic injury and to
irreversible decline.
Fletcher_C013.indd 52
5/13/2009 10:22:29 AM
The Shocked Patient
Vasodilatory (septic)
Myocardial damage
Diastolic filling
Myocardial depression
Systolic function
CO ±
Multiple organ dysfunction syndrome
Figure 13.1 Flowchart showing the development of multiple organ dysfunction syndrome. CO, cardiac output; MAP, mean arterial pressure; SVR, systemic
vascular resistance.
Box 13.1 Features common to different varieties of shock
• Hypotension
Systolic BP <90 mmHg or
Drop in systolic blood pressure of >40 mmHg
{ Profound refractory hypotension in the late stage of shock
Cool, clammy skin: except in vasodilatory shock
Signs of hypovolaemia: oliguria, tachycardia, orthostatic
hypotension, poor skin turgor, absent axillary sweat and dry
mucous membranes
Change in mental state: agitation, confusion, delirium and
ending in obtundation or frank coma
Metabolic acidosis: due to increased lactate production
Cardiogenic shock
Cardiogenic shock is a state of inadequate tissue perfusion due to
cardiac dysfunction. It occurs most commonly as a complication
of acute myocardial infarction, but it may also be seen in patients
with severe tachy- or bradyarrhythmias, valvular heart disease or in
the terminal stage of chronic heart failure of any cause, including
ischaemic heart disease and dilated cardiomyopathy.
Cardiogenic shock complicates 6–9% of acute myocardial
infarction (MI). The majority of patients have ST-elevation MI
(STEMI), but cardiogenic shock can also occur in patients with
a non-ST elevation acute coronary syndrome. In establishing
the diagnosis, a history of cardiac disease or MI is helpful, along
with associated physical findings of haemodynamic instability,
Fletcher_C013.indd 53
peripheral vasoconstriction and pulmonary and/or systemic venous
congestion. An ECG is essential and a normal tracing almost rules
out shock of cardiac origin.
In compressive or obstructive cardiogenic shock, the heart and
surrounding structures are less compliant and despite normal filling pressures there is inadequate diastolic filling. Clinical features
of massive pulmonary embolism (chest pain, collapse, evidence
of DVT), or pericardial tamponade (penetrating thoracic injury,
raised JVP, muffled heart sounds, impalpable apex beat) may be
present, but any cause of increased intrathoracic pressure such as
tension pneumothorax or excessive positive pressure ventilation
can also cause compressive cardiogenic shock.
Anaphylactic shock
Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction that is rapid in onset (usually less than an hour) and may cause death. It is an IgE-mediated,
immediate hypersensitivity reaction to proteins (allergens).
Anaphylactoid reactions are clinically indistinguishable but are not
IgE mediated. The most common causes of anaphylaxis in adults
are drugs, such as beta-lactam antibiotics (including penicillins)
and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, foods (seafood, fish and
peanuts), insect stings/bites, radiocontrast agents, latex and immunotherapy drugs. No specific trigger can be identified in up to 60%
of cases.
Anaphylactic shock occurs in 30% of all cases. Cardiovascular
collapse results from increased vascular permeability causing severe
hypovolaemia, a reduction in peripheral vascular resistance, and
myocardial depression.
5/13/2009 10:22:30 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Box 13.2 Types of shock
Box 13.3 Sepsis definitions and clinical features
1 Vasodilatory shock: due to severe decrease in systemic vascular
resistance (SVR), often associated with increased cardiac output
• Septic shock
• Anaphylactic shock
• Neurogenic shock
• Toxic shock syndrome
• Adrenal (Addisonian) crisis
• Myxoedema coma
• Thyroid storm
• Drug or toxin reactions, e.g. transfusion reaction, insect bites
• Activation of the systemic inflammatory response,
e.g. pancreatitis, burns
Systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) includes two or
more of:
• Temperature >38ºC or <36ºC
• Heart rate >90 beats/minute unless patient is taking medication
to reduce the rate (beta blocker or calcium channel blocker) or
the heart is paced
• Respiratory rate >20 breaths/minute or mechanically ventilated
• Leucocyte count >12 or <4
2 Hypovolaemic shock: due to decrease in preload leading to
reduced cardiac output
• Fluid loss, e.g. vomiting, diarrhoea, polyuria, burns,
pancreatitis, post- operatively, intestinal obstruction and
thermal injury
• Haemorrhage, e.g. gastrointestinal bleeding, fractures, trauma,
ruptured aortic aneurysm
3 Cardiogenic shock: due to decreased cardiac output
A Intrinsic
• Myopathic, e.g. acute myocardial infarction involving
more than 40% of left ventricular myocardium, dilated
cardiomyopathy, right ventricular infarction
• Arrhythmias, both tachy- and bradyarrhythmias
• Mechanical, e.g. acute mitral regurgitation, acute aortic
regurgitation in type A aortic dissection, critical aortic
stenosis, ventricular septal defect, ruptured ventricular
B Compressive/obstructive
• Tension pneumothorax
• Massive pulmonary embolism
• Cardiac tamponade
• Severe constrictive pericarditis
The diagnosis of anaphylaxis is clinical but it is often underdiagnosed and undertreated. Most common signs and symptoms
are urticaria, angioedema, pruritus and flushing. Danger signs
are rapid progression of symptoms, stridor, respiratory distress
(e.g. wheezing, constant dry cough), hypotension, dysrhythmia
and syncope. The first and the most important therapy of anaphylaxis is intramuscular epinephrine, and many patients carry
an Epipen® if they know they are at risk.
Other causes of shock not suggested by
the history
Neurogenic shock
Neurogenic shock results from the interruption of sympathetic
vasomotor input after a high cervical spinal cord injury, inadvertent cephalad migration of spinal anaesthesia, or severe head injury.
Venodilation occurs in addition to arteriolar dilation, leading to
decreased venous return and cardiac output. The extremities are
Fletcher_C013.indd 54
Sepsis: presence or presumed presence of an infection accompanied
by evidence of SIRS
Severe sepsis: presence of sepsis and at least one of the following
signs of organ hypoperfusion or organ dysfunction
• Organ hypoperfusion
{ Increased blood lactate >2 mmol/l
{ Oliguria <0.5 ml/kg/h for at least 1 hour
{ Abnormal peripheral circulation, such as poor capillary refill,
mottled skin
{ Acute alteration in mental status
• Organ dysfunction
{ The haematological system, e.g. thrombocytopenia,
disseminated intravascular coagulation
{ The pulmonary system, e.g. acute lung injury, acute respiratory
distress syndrome
{ The renal system, e.g. acute renal failure
{ The gastrointestinal system with hepatic dysfunction, e.g. ileus,
hyperbilirubinaemia (shock liver)
{ The central nervous system, e.g. confusion, delirium
{ Metabolic, e.g. hyperglycaemia, hypoglycaemia (late)
Septic shock: presence of sepsis with refractory hypotension
• Systolic blood pressure <90 mmHg
• A mean arterial pressure <65 mmHg or a 40 mmHg drop in
systolic blood pressure compared with baseline
• No response to fluid challenge of 20 ml/kg colloid or 40 ml/kg
• Vasopressor dependency after adequate volume resuscitation
often warm. There may be clinical clues on examination, such as
a relative bradycardia, diaphragmatic breathing, and a failure to
respond to initial fluid resuscitation.
This is usually due to alcohol or a gallstone, but can occur after
direct injury or some drugs. There is upper or generalised
abdominal tenderness along with features of hypovolaemic
Toxic shock syndrome
This is usually due to the systemic effects of Staphylococcus aureus
toxin. There is often a history of staphylococcal infection or tampon retention (causing vaginal discharge). There is usually a high
fever (40°C), headache, abdominal pain and a confluent red rash.
Less commonly, Group A Streptococcus causes invasive disease that
is complicated by toxic shock syndrome.
5/13/2009 10:22:30 AM
The Shocked Patient
40 breaths/minute, heart rate 110/minute, oxygen saturation 88%
breathing air, temperature 35.8oC, blood pressure 80/60 mmHg.
She has passed minimal urine.
Jugular venous pressure is not elevated and peripheral oedema is
absent. There is no calf swelling or tenderness suggesting deep vein
thrombosis. Heart sounds are normal without any added sound and
there is no parasternal heave. Chest examination reveals right basal
crackles without wheeze. Abdominal examination is unremarkable
and rectal examination normal.
Case history revisited
To diagnose anaphylaxis, a history of previous reactions would be
useful, and it is important to establish the exact nature and timing of the over-the-counter tablets she took. Along with this, a
history of rash and itching would help. The absence of wheeze or
chest pain does not suggest anaphylaxis and also common causes of
cardiogenic shock, but her history of ischaemic heart disease and
recent travel is still important. We need more information about
her recent bowel habit, specifically for melaena, to explore the
possibility of haemorrhage. Questions tailored to identify recent
fever and a source of infection are essential pointers to diagnosing
septic shock.
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principal working diagnosis?
Principal working diagnosis – septic shock
There is ample evidence of organ dysfunction and poor blood
flow, so shock is confirmed. Sepsis is promoted by evidence
She is distressed with mild confusion. There is no rash, and she
has cool, mottled peripheries. Observations are respiratory rate
Establish diagnosis
of severe sepsis
Begin resuscitation immediately
1000 ml
in 250 ml
boluses or
Early goal directed therapy – first 6 hours
Resuscitation goals:
<8 cm H20
• Central venous pressure (CVP): 8–12 mmHg
• Mean arterial pressure ≥65 mm/Hg
• Urine output ≥0.5 ml/kg/hour
• Central venous oxygen
saturation ≥70%
500 ml
colloid in
250 ml
>8 cm H20
• Central line for CVP and central
venous oxygen saturation ScvO2
• Initial resuscitation with
1000 ml of crystalloids or
300–500 ml of colloids over 30 minutes
• More fluid to keep CVP
8–12 mm of Hg
• Blood cultures centrally and
from all access ports
• Broad spectrum antibiotics
• Transfuse blood if Hb <7.0 g/l
• Transfer to High Dependency Unit
• Inform Intensivists early
• Intensive blood glucose monitoring:
aim for blood glucose of <8.3 mmol/l
• Stress ulcer prophylaxis
• Deep vein thrombosis prophylaxis
<65 mmHg
Nor Ad
>65 mmHg
Senior review
to keep
Hb >7.0
Figure 13.2 Management of severe sepsis and septic shock: hypotension or serum lactate >4 mmol/l.
Fletcher_C013.indd 55
5/13/2009 10:22:30 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
of hypovolaemia, signs of a respiratory infection, and the
history and examination findings that steer away from other
differentials. In particular, there are no signs of cardiogenic or
obstructive shock here. The absence of wheeze or an urticarial
rash make anaphylaxis very unlikely, and the absence of obvious or occult haemorrhage makes haemorrhagic shock less likely
(but still possible).
Resuscitation is essential. Oxygen, secure wide bore intravenous
access and fluid resuscitation should be simultaneous with investigation. Blood tests including blood cultures are mandatory, as are
an ECG, chest X-ray and urinalysis (plus a catheter). Early senior
clinical involvement, often with critical care support is necessary to
ensure the correct diagnosis and treatments are secured.
Severe sepsis and septic shock are major healthcare problems,
affecting millions of individuals around the world every year,
killing one in four and often more in the developing and underdeveloped world. Appropriate interventions administered within
the first few hours after severe sepsis develops influence the outcome (see Figure 13.2).
Discussion of specific interventions for other causes of shock is
beyond the scope of this chapter.
Our patient failed to respond to two fluid challenges and required
treatment in a high dependency unit with antibiotics and inotropic
vasoconstrictors. This was sufficient to ward off the need for dialysis as she recovered slowly from her pneumonia over the following
10 days.
Fletcher_C013.indd 56
Further reading
Annane D, Bellissant E, Carvallion JM. Septic shock. Lancet 2005; 365:
Dellinger RP, Levy MM, Carlet JM, et al. Surviving Sepsis Campaign: international guidelines for management of severe sepsis and septic shock:
2008. Critical Care Medicine 2008; 36:296–327.
Hotchkiss RS, Karl IE. The pathophysiology and treatment of shock. New
England Journal of Medicine 2003; 348:138–150.
Kortgen A, Niederprum P, Bauer M. Implementation of an evidence-based
‘standard operating procedure’ and outcome in septic shock. Critical Care
Medicine 2006; 34:943–949.
Magder S. Central venous pressure: a useful but not so simple measurement.
Critical Care Medicine 2006; 34:2224–2227.
Nguyen HB, Corbett SW, Steel R, et al. Implementation of a bundle of quality
indicators for the early management of severe sepsis and septic shock is
associated with decreased mortality. Critical Care Medicine 2007; 35:
Ramrakha P, Moore K. Oxford Handbook of Acute Medicine, Second Edition.
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004.
Rivers E, Nguyen B, Havstad S, et al. Early goal-directed therapy in the treatment of severe sepsis and septic shock. New England Journal of Medicine
2001; 345:1368–1377.
SAFE Study Investigators. A comparison of albumin and saline for fluid
resuscitation in the intensive care unit. New England Journal of Medicine
2004; 350:2247–2256.
Shapiro NI, Howell MD, Talmor D, et al. Implementation and outcomes of
the Multiple Urgent Sepsis Therapies (MUST) protocol. Critical Care
Medicine 2006; 34:1025–1032.
Shorr AF, Micek ST, Jackson WL Jr, et al. Economic implementation of an
evidence based sepsis protocol: can we improve outcomes and lower costs?
Critical Care Medicine 2007; 35:1257–1262.
Tintinalli J, Kelen G, Stapczynski S, et al. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive
Study Guide, Sixth Edition. McGraw-Hill, New York, 2003.
Wyatt JP, Illingworth R, Graham C, et al. Oxford Handbook of Emergency
Medicine, Third Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
5/13/2009 10:22:31 AM
Charles Heatley
A 32-year-old woman presents with a 4-week history of
‘palpitations’ which have been increasing in frequency and now
occur several times each day, making her increasingly anxious. She
is also complaining of episodic ‘thumping’ feelings in her chest as
if her heart is ‘trying to escape from her chest’. She has managed
to keep working as a cleaner and caring for her two children,
involving a half mile walk uphill to school each day. She drinks
little alcohol, does not smoke, and consumes six cups of coffee
daily. She has no significant past medical history although she has
lost over a stone in weight in the last 3 months without dieting.
She is on a combined oral contraceptive.
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
‘Palpitations’ describes the awareness of one’s heart beating, usually
because the beats are more forceful, faster or irregular than normal.
It is a disturbing symptom for patients but does not usually represent any structural abnormality of the heart and is not commonly a
life-threatening condition.
Careful questioning can usually identify normal sensations in
a healthy patient and the presence of significant arrhythmia. Ask
the patient about the pattern of each event. An open question such
as, ‘Can you describe what you mean by palpitations?’ will give
the patient an opportunity to describe the episode in more detail.
Further important questions appear in Box 14.2, and associated
symptoms in Box 14.3.
The differential diagnosis will include increased awareness of the
heartbeat, an arrhythmia, panic attacks and thyrotoxicosis.
Increased awareness
Some patients become aware of their normal heart beat which
they find unpleasant. This may occur when they are relaxing in a
quiet environment, or be provoked by exercise or emotional upset.
Stimulants such as alcohol, tobacco and ephedrine may also provoke this problem (see Box 14.4). Increased awareness of premature
beats can lead to a feeling that the heart has missed/skipped a beat
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
Box 14.1 Causes of palpitations
• Sinus tachycardia
• Premature beats
• Narrow complex tachycardias:
Paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia
Atrial fibrillation/flutter
• Broad complex tachycardia
• Ventricular tachycardia
Box 14.2 Important questions about palpitations
The duration of each attack
Whether there is an abrupt or gradual onset
Whether the rhythm is regular or irregular
At what rate the patient perceives the heart is beating
Whether attacks occur at rest or on exertion
Accompanying symptoms – breathlessness, chest pain
Estimate coffee and alcohol intake
Other symptoms, e.g. weight loss, diarrhoea, flushing
Box 14.3 Symptoms associated with palpitations
In order of increasing severity and decreasing frequency:
• None
• Awareness of heart beating
• Missed beats or thumps
• Fatigue, light-headedness, dyspnoea, polyuria (SVT)
• Syncope
• Cardiac arrest
and patients worry about the prolonged pause or the ‘thump’ of the
stronger next sinus beat.
Arrhythmias (see Box 14.1)
Narrow complex tachycardia
Those tachycardias arising from the atria or the atrioventricular
node will be conducted to the ventricles in a normal fashion and so
will have a normal QRS morphology with a duration of less than
0.12 seconds.
Fletcher_C014.indd 57
5/13/2009 10:29:25 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
The commonest example of this type of arrhythmia is a paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia. This form of rhythm disturbance
occurs in patients with structurally normal hearts and results from
a ‘short circuit’ in the wiring system. These tachycardias start and
finish abruptly and may last for seconds, minutes, hours or days.
The heart rate is usually between 150 and 250 beats/minute, is
regular, and is usually well tolerated by the patient.
Less common forms of narrow complex tachycardias include
atrial tachycardia.
Atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter
In contrast to PSVT, these rhythm disturbances are usually associated with heart disease, e.g. hypertension, ischaemic and valvular
heart disease and alcohol.
In atrial fibrillation the atrial rate is extremely rapid at 600/minute, with a variable degree of atrioventricular block resulting in a
ventricular rhythm that is irregular and bears no relationship to the
atrial rhythm. Atrial fibrillation can be paroxysmal, persistent or
permanent; the longer it has been present, the longer it is likely to
persist (see Figure 14.1).
Atrial flutter, which is much less common than fibrillation, is
characterised by a rapid atrial rate at 300/minute with variable
conduction through the atrioventricular node, resulting in a slower
ventricular response. The ECG is usually characterised by a ‘saw
toothed’ pattern of P wave activity.
The identification of ventricular tachycardia demands prompt
further investigation in secondary care, as ventricular tachycardia
can lead to ventricular fibrillation (see Figure 14.2).
Panic attack
Patients suffering from anxiety frequently present with palpitations
associated with a variety of other physical symptoms. Ask whether
the patient is anxious about these attacks, experiences anxiety
during the attacks or is anxious in general. Commonly patients
become more vigilant about the activity of their heart if they are
scared about heart disease, particularly if a close friend or family member has recently experienced significant heart problems.
There is a specific set of symptoms, thoughts and feelings defining
panic attacks which can lead to a positive diagnosis of this disorder
(see Box 14.5).
Palpitations can occur in association with thyrotoxicosis as sinus
tachycardia and atrial fibrillation are commonly recognised in this
condition. There are many other symptoms and signs characteristic
of this condition (see Box 14.6).
Although palpitations alone are unlikely to be the presenting
feature of thyrotoxicosis the diagnosis should be considered in this
woman as she has had significant weight loss.
Ventricular tachycardia
Whilst occasional or frequent single ventricular ectopics are a
common finding, ventricular tachycardia is defined as three or
more consecutive ventricular beats at a rate of 120 beats/minute
or more. It is called sustained if the ventricular tachycardia persists
for 30 seconds or more. Although it is more commonly associated
with structural heart disease than other arrhythmias, it can still
occur in a healthy heart.
Fast ventricular rates in association with heart disease are more
likely to give rise to symptoms. The ECG shows complexes greater
than 0.12 seconds in duration.
Box 14.4 Drugs/stimulants giving rise to palpitations
Ephedrine, pseudoephedrine
Cocaine and crack, amphetamines
Salbutamol and other inhaled β2 agonists
Figure 14.1 Atrial fibrillation.
Fletcher_C014.indd 58
Figure 14.2 Ventricular tachycardia.
Box 14.5 DSM IV criteria for diagnosing a panic attack
A discrete period of intense fear or discomfort, in which four (or
more) of the following symptoms develop abruptly and reached a
peak within 10 minutes:
• Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
• Sweating
• Trembling or shaking
• Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
• Feeling of choking
• Chest pain or discomfort
• Nausea or abdominal distress
• Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
• Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being
detached from oneself)
• Fear of losing control or going crazy
• Fear of dying
• Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)
• Chills or hot flushes
5/13/2009 10:29:25 AM
Box 14.6 Symptoms and signs of thyrotoxicosis
Weight loss
Heat intolerance
Tachycardia/atrial fibrillation
Warm peripheries
Goitre/thyroid bruit
Proximal myopathy
Case history revisited
On further questioning this woman has two forms of palpitations.
The first are episodes of fast regular palpitations with an abrupt
onset, lasting for a few minutes at a time, and the second an occasional ‘thumping’ in her chest, lasting seconds.
There was no history of any other symptoms suggestive of thyrotoxicosis or the use of other stimulants.
Examination was normal. Her resting heart rate was 76 beats/minute,
blood pressure 110/75 mmHg and cardiovascular examination was
normal. There were no signs of thyrotoxicosis. The electrocardiogram was normal.
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principal working diagnosis?
Principle working diagnosis – Paroxysmal
supraventricular tachycardia and premature
In many cases a thorough history, examination and electrocardiogram will be all that is required to reassure a patient who is
experiencing increased awareness of ventricular ectopics or their
normal rhythm.
Appropriate blood tests should be performed to assess thyroid
status, urea and electrolytes, liver function and full blood count.
More detailed investigations including 24-hour Holter monitoring, loop event recorders and electrophysiological studies are
Fletcher_C014.indd 59
required in those patients with a clear history suggestive of an
24-hour Holter monitoring
In this investigation a patient has a two or three lead ECG
machine fitted. This is portable and can be comfortably worn for
24 hours during which the patient is asked to complete a diary
documenting any symptomatic episodes that may correlate with
recorded ECG abnormalities. These machines can later be interrogated by computer resulting in a report documenting episodes of abnormal rhythm and thereafter confirmed by a cardiac
technician or cardiologist. The advantage of this investigation
is that a complete record is obtained over 24 hours and can
correlate symptoms with either normal or abnormal rhythm
problems. The disadvantage is in patients whose symptoms are
less frequent in which case repeated or sometimes prolonged
investigation is required.
Loop event recorders
A loop event recorder can be worn for 2–3 weeks. It is a smaller unit
which continuously monitors rhythm but only records to memory
on activation by the patient during symptomatic episodes, from
1 minute before to 1 minute after activation. The rhythm strips are
later analysed and reported.
Twenty-four hour Holter monitoring revealed that this woman was
experiencing frequent ventricular ectopics only. All her symptoms
settled once she stopped drinking coffee.
Further reading
Ramrakha P, Moore K. Oxford Handbook of Acute Medicine, Second Edition.
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004.
Simon C, Everitt H, Kendrick T. Oxford Handbook of General Practice, Second
Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002.
Swanton RH. Cardiology, Fifth Edition. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2003.
Tintinalli J, Kelen G, Stapczynski S, et al. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive
Study Guide, Sixth Edition. McGraw-Hill, New York, 2003.
Warrell DA, Cox TM, Firth JD, Benz EJ Jr (Eds). Oxford Textbook of Medicine,
Fourth Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003.
Wyatt JP, Illingworth R, Graham C, et al. Oxford Handbook of Emergency
Medicine, Third Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
5/13/2009 10:29:27 AM
C H A P T E R 15
Low Back Pain
Richard Kendall
A 62-year-old retired teacher complains of back pain. The pain is
situated in his lower back and started fairly abruptly this morning.
He fell backwards getting out of the bath 2 days previously and
feels that the pain is possibly related to the fall, although
yesterday he was fully mobile and pain free. The pain is constant
and moderately severe scoring 6/10. It is localised slightly to the
left of his lumbar region and is not made particularly worse by
movement. He has also experienced some abdominal discomfort.
He has no new urinary symptoms and his bowels are also normal.
He has tried taking some paracetamol and codeine for the pain
but it has not helped. His past history includes ulcerative colitis
and benign prostatic hypertrophy. His current medication is
prednisolone 5 mg and mesalazine 500 mg three times a day.
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
Low back pain has a very wide differential ranging from the life
threatening to the ‘common or garden’ (see Box 15.1). It is important to be methodical in your approach and consider all relevant
diagnoses, especially those that are more serious (see Table 15.1).
Mechanical back pain
The vast majority of the population have experienced mechanical low
back pain at some stage in their lives. This is the commonest cause of
back pain. Mechanical back pain is a heterogeneous group of pathologies relating to the vertebral column and associated soft tissues.
Degenerative disease of the intervertebral discs and facet joints
can cause pain as can damage to the ligaments or adjacent muscles
(paravertebral muscles). The exact nature of the problem is not
important since the treatment of mechanical back pain is the same
whatever the specific cause. The key is to be comfortable with the
diagnosis and to ensure that no ‘red flag’ symptoms are present suggesting serious causes of back pain. Typically there is a history of
recurrent backache and stiffness which is provoked by an activity
such as exercise, digging or lifting. In addition there is commonly
back stiffness especially in the morning and after sitting still.
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
Box 15.1 Differential diagnosis for low back pain
Common causes:
• Mechanical back pain
• Fractured vertebrae – direct trauma/osteoporotic
• Prolapsed intervertebral disc
• Renal colic
• Pyelonephritis
Less common causes:
• Bony malignancy – secondary infiltration (lung, breast, prostate,
renal, thyroid cancer)
• Multiple myeloma
• Symptomatic aortic aneurysm (either stretching or ruptured)
• Pancreatitis
Rare but important causes:
• Discitis or osteomyelitis
• Epidural abscess
• Prostatitis
• Retroperitoneal tumours–pancreatic carcinoma, sarcoma
Table 15.1 Low back pain: red flag symptoms.
Red flag symptom
Possible pathology
Saddle area paraesthesia
Cauda equina syndrome
Urinary symptoms such as retention,
difficulty passing urine and
Cauda equina syndrome
Faecal incontinence
Cauda equina syndrome
Constant pain, at night and rest
Malignant disease or infective
Infective process
Abdominal pain
Aortic aneurysm
Sudden onset or cardiovascular
Aortic aneurysm
Fletcher_C015.indd 60
5/13/2009 10:31:02 AM
Low Back Pain
Treatment involves gentle mobilisation, simple analgesia and
antispasmodics. A combination of paracetamol, low dose diazepam
and a NSAID is commonly sufficient. Back exercises and, in those
patients with persistent symptoms, physiotherapy may be helpful.
Vertebral fracture
This always needs to be considered in patients where there is a history of trauma and in those at risk of osteoporosis. If there is a delay
between the injury and onset of pain it is likely the pain is related to
a soft tissue injury or an exacerbation of a degenerative condition
rather than a fracture. Where there is a convincing history of injury
or bony tenderness, plain radiographs of the lumbar spine are indicated. An osteoporotic fracture can occur with minimal or even no
trauma and needs to be considered in anyone at risk of osteoporosis. This man is at risk of osteoporosis because of the long term use
of steroids to control his inflammatory bowel disease.
Prolapsed intervertebral disc
Intervertebral discs degenerate over time and the disc can herniate
to press on the associated nerve root (see Figure 15.1). The characteristic symptom of a prolapsed disc is sciatica. Sciatica is a pain
that radiates down the posterior aspect of the leg further than the
knee and may radiate as far as the ankle or foot. Signs of a nerve
entrapment include muscle weakness, loss of sensation, diminished
or absent reflexes, and a positive straight leg raise test.
The straight leg raise test involves positioning the patient supine
and raising the leg of the patient by flexing the hip whilst maintaining full knee extension (see Figure 15.2). A positive test is where the
Spinal column
patient experiences pain radiating down the posterior of the leg as
the nerve roots are stretched.
The commonest nerve roots affected are the L5 nerve from
compression of a degenerative L4/L5 disc and the S1 nerve
from compression of a degenerative L5/S1 disc (see Table 15.2).
Other causes of nerve root compression include spinal stenosis
and the cauda equina syndrome. The spinal column ends at the
level of the L1/L2 vertebrae and the bundle of nerve fibres that
continues in the spinal canal is named the cauda equina. Cauda
equina syndrome relates to the compression of the cauda equina
most commonly by the central prolapse of an intervertebral disc
(see Figure 15.3). Cauda equina syndrome is a true emergency
and must be considered in any patient presenting with back pain
(see Box 15.2). Typically the patient complains of bilateral leg
pain, with limited straight leg raising and there may be bilateral leg weakness and absent reflexes. The development of
bladder or bowel dysfunction and paraesthesiae in the saddle
distribution indicates the involvement of the sacral nerve roots
S2–4 and is a surgical emergency. Nerve root compression
of S2–4 gives rise to laxity of anal tone and loss of perianal
sensation (see Figure 15.4).
Table 15.2 Signs and symptoms of L5 and S1 nerve compression.
L5 nerve (L4/L5 disc)
S1 nerve (L5/S1 disc)
Motor weakness
Dorsiflexion of big toe (extensor
hallucis longus) and foot
Plantar flexion of big
toe and foot
Sensory deficit
Big toe, medial border foot
Lateral border of foot
Variable /no deficit
Ankle reflex diminished
Cauda equina
Prolapsing disc
compressing spinal
Spinal nerve
Central disc
Figure 15.1 Prolapsed disc pressing on associated nerve root.
Spinal nerve
Figure 15.3 Central prolapse of intervertebral disc causing cauda equina
Box 15.2 Symptoms and signs suggestive of cauda equina
• Bilateral leg symptoms and/or signs
• Urinary symptoms – retention of urine, difficulty passing urine,
Figure 15.2 Straight leg raising – hip flexed with knee fully extended.
Record the maximum angle that the leg is extended from the horizontal
Fletcher_C015.indd 61
Faecal incontinence
Residual volume of urine after voiding
Reduced or absent anal tone
Perianal or perineal paraesthesia
5/13/2009 10:31:02 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
commonly metastasize to bone are lung, prostate, kidney, thyroid
and breast. Occasionally bony metastases are the first presentation of underlying malignancy. Bone pain is typically persistent,
chronic, unremitting and worse at night. Plain radiographs may not
show malignant deposits. If malignant disease is suspected, then
a radionucleotide scan (bone scan) is indicated. Myeloma can be
difficult to establish and needs to be considered in any person
over 60 years with bone pain. Plain radiographs may be normal;
a urinary Bence-Jones protein test and plasma electrophoresis are
required for diagnosis.
Although pancreatitis is relatively common it is unusual for it to
present solely with back pain. The pain in pancreatitis is usually
located in the upper abdomen and radiates into the back. Serum
amylase levels will be elevated, usually seven times greater than
Figure 15.4 Saddle paraesthesiae. Any subjective or objective paraesthesiae
in the area shown is suggestive of cauda equina syndrome.
Renal colic
Typically renal colic presents with loin pain that radiates to the
groin. On occasions the pain is located only in the loin. There is
no history of trauma and the pain characteristically is of sudden
onset. Urinary symptoms are common. Microscopic haematuria is
present in 95% of cases of renal colic but there are many other
causes of microscopic haematuria. Loin tenderness is common
but abdominal tenderness is very unusual in renal colic. If there is
abdominal tenderness, carefully consider the possibility of an alternative problem, in particular an abdominal aortic aneurysm.
In pyelonephritis the pain and tenderness commonly is located in
the loin. There are often lower urinary tract symptoms and associated constitutional symptoms such as fever, rigors and anorexia.
Less common causes of back pain
Symptomatic aortic aneurysm
The aorta is a retroperitoneal structure and typically a symptomatic
aortic aneurysm gives rise to back and abdominal pain. Whereas
an intraperitoneal rupture of the aorta gives rise to pain of sudden
onset and shock, a contained leak may just cause pain. Patients
are usually unaware they have an aortic aneurysm. Clinical examination is notoriously unreliable in detecting aortic aneurysms,
particularly if the patient is overweight, though the presence of
a tender pulsatile expansile mass is highly suggestive. Be wary in
patients over the age of 55 who present with apparent renal colic,
typically on the left side, as this is a well-recognised presentation of
a leaking aneurysm. Occasionally aneurysms that are rapidly growing will be become symptomatic and painful due to the sudden
stretching of the arterial wall, but without rupture.
Bony malignancy – metastatic cancer, myeloma
Bony metastases are an important cause to consider in any one
with known malignant disease. The five malignancies that most
Fletcher_C015.indd 62
Rare but important causes of back pain
Infective causes – discitis, osteomyelitis, epidural abscess
These conditions are all rare but important to consider in anyone
with constitutional symptoms such as fever or rigors and severe
back pain. At risk groups are patients where there has been an intervention of some sort (for example a recent nerve root injection),
diabetics, injecting drug users and immunosuppressed patients.
As with malignancy, the pain associated with infection is persistent and unremitting and often worse at night. On examination
there may be localised tenderness and swelling over the affected
vertebra. As these conditions are uncommon a high index of
suspicion is required which should lead to the full evaluation of
any patient in a high risk group who presents with severe nontraumatic back pain.
Prostatitis is uncommon. At risk groups are those with bladder
outflow obstruction and homosexual men. The pain is severe and
localised to the lower back and perineum. Prostatic examination
is painful with the prostate being exquisitely tender. There may be
constitutional features such as fever and rigors. Commonly, there is
an associated urinary tract infection.
Case history revisited
Given the differential diagnosis it is important to enquire about
urinary symptoms, sphincter disturbance, leg pain and weakness as
well as constitutional symptoms. Likewise the examination should
include an assessment of the abdomen, urinalysis, the spine, rectal
examination and neurology in the lower limbs (see Box 15.3).
This man’s vital signs are normal. He is apyrexial, his pulse is
86 beats/minute, blood pressure 115/85 mmHg and his oxygen
saturations are 96% on room air. Abdominal examination reveals
an overweight individual with epigastric and left-sided abdominal tenderness. There is no obvious palpable pulsatile mass.
5/13/2009 10:31:02 AM
Low Back Pain
Box 15.3 Minimum points in history and examination
• Onset, nature and severity of the pain
• Aggravating features, presence of leg pain (sciatica)
• History of injury
• Systemic symptoms, e.g. fever
• Bladder/bowel dysfunction
• Saddle paraesthesia
• Identification of at risk group, e.g.
{ Known malignancy – possible bony metastases
{ Immunosuppression – possible infective cause
{ Any red flag symptoms?
• Abdominal examination
• Palpation of lumbar spine for tenderness and assessment of
• Neurological examination of legs
• Rectal examination – perianal sensation and anal tone reserved
for those patients with any signs or symptoms suggestive of
cauda equina syndrome
He is minimally tender in the left loin and in the left paravertebral
muscles. There is no tenderness along the lumbar spine. Rectal
examination is normal, with normal perianal sensation and
normal anal tone. His prostate is enlarged but smooth with no
tenderness. Neurological examination of his lower limbs is
normal with power MRC grade 5/5 in all muscle groups, normal
sensation and reflexes. Straight leg raising is to 90° in both legs
with no pain. His urinanalysis reveals 1+ of blood but is otherwise
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principle working diagnosis?
Principle working diagnosis – possible ruptured
aortic aneurysm
In view of the abdominal tenderness and acute onset of pain,
a symptomatic aortic aneurysm must be excluded. Renal colic
is a possibility but abdominal (as opposed to loin) tenderness is
unusual. Microscopic haematuria is in keeping with renal colic but
it is unusual to have a first episode of renal colic in your sixties.
Fletcher_C015.indd 63
Figure 15.5 Bedside ultrasound showing an aortic aneurysm. Fluid transmits
ultrasound and is black on ultrasound images. The aneurysm is the black
circular structure in the centre of the picture.
He is at risk of osteoporosis due to being prescribed corticosteroids. However, the fact that he was pain free the day after his
injury and the lack of bony tenderness, make a fracture unlikely.
A mechanical cause for the pain is unlikely since the pain is not
made worse by movement.
To investigate for an aortic aneurysm, a bedside ultrasound
examination of his aorta is undertaken. This shows a 6 cm aortic
aneurysm (see Figure 15.5). A CT scan of his abdomen confirms the
presence of a 6 cm infra-renal aortic aneurysm with a contained
rupture in the left retroperitoneal space. This is repaired and he
makes an excellent recovery.
Further reading
Knot A, Polmear A. Practical General Practice: Guidelines for Effective Clinical
Management, Fourth Edition. Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 2004.
Simon C, Everitt H, Kendrick T. Oxford Handbook of General Practice, Second
Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002.
Tintinalli J, Kelen G, Stapczynski S, et al. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive
Study Guide, Sixth Edition. McGraw-Hill, New York, 2003.
Wardrope J, English B. Musculo-skeletal Problems in Emergency Medicine,
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998.
Wyatt JP, Illingworth R, Graham C, et al. Oxford Handbook of Emergency
Medicine, Third Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
5/13/2009 10:31:03 AM
C H A P T E R 16
Acute Confusion
Steve Goodacre
A 75-year-old woman is discovered confused and agitated in her
living room by her family. She is still in her nightclothes and has
been doubly incontinent. She was well when her family last saw
her 2 days ago. She is frightened and does not recognise her
family, and is not voicing any complaint of pain. She is normally
occasionally forgetful, lives alone but is normally independent and
self-caring. There is a past history of type 2 diabetes, ischaemic
heart disease, hypertension and depression. Her medication list
includes: gliclazide 80 mg twice daily, aspirin 75 mg once daily,
isosorbide mononitrate MR 60 mg once daily, atenolol 25 mg once
daily, ramipril 2.5 mg once daily and citalopram 20 mg once daily.
She smokes five cigarettes a day and rarely drinks alcohol.
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
The common pathway for all causes of acute confusion is impaired
cerebral function. There are many potential causes (see Table 16.1),
therefore a system of classification is useful. A number of causes may
co-exist, and an underlying pathology may cause delirium by a variety of mechanisms. For example, pneumonia may cause delirium
through hypoxia, hypercapnia, shock, and the toxic effects of sepsis.
A simple system for classifying causes of acute confusion is to
divide causes into:
• Lack of vital elements for cerebral function.
• Systemic factors that impair cerebral function.
• Local factors that impair cerebral function.
Abnormalities of blood glucose should be considered in all cases
of delirium, especially if there is a history of diabetes mellitus.
Unfortunately, a clear history is often not available and therefore
an early assessment of glucose using a bedside meter is essential,
as problems are common and easily reversible. Occasionally, a
history of missed or changed medication, or recent hypoglycaemic episodes, is available. Patients may be aggressive or behave
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
inappropriately in the early stages, and become progressively drowsy
and unconscious as the metabolic problem progresses.
Many patients with hypoglycaemia will be sweaty and clammy.
Some will also have a focal neurological sign that resolves when
the hypoglycaemia is reversed. Those with hyperglycaemia may be
dehydrated and ketoacidotic (see Box 16.1). Hyperglycaemia and
hypoglycaemia may be a consequence of other pathology, such as
infections, that cause confusion by other mechanisms.
Toxic metabolites and fever can impair cerebral function. This is
probably the most common cause of acute confusion in the elderly
and may be associated with relatively minor infections, such as
chest or urinary tract infection. Patients are usually pyrexial.
A careful history often reveals a potential source of infection
(e.g. dysuria, cough) and the possibility of meningitis or encephalitis should always be considered. In older people, pneumococcal
Table 16.1 Causes of acute confusion.
Lack of vital
elements for
brain function
Systemic factors
Local factors
Renal failure
Hepatic failure
Drugs (overdose, side
effect or withdrawal)
Electrolyte disturbance
Infections (meningitis,
encephalitis, abscess)
Tumours (primary and secondary)
Trauma (concussion, brain injury,
intracranial haematoma)
Haemorrhage (subarachnoid or
Epilepsy (post ictal)
Box 16.1 Clinical features of diabetic ketoacidosis
Deep rapid breathing (Kussmaul)
Tachycardia and shock
Abdominal pain
Drowsiness and confusion
Fletcher_C016.indd 64
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Acute Confusion
meningitis often presents with acute confusion, and a history
of a recent ear, chest or sinus infection is very relevant. Listeria
meningitis is suggested by a history of recent contaminated food
ingestion and vomiting. A history of bizarre behaviour, headache,
seizures, and a mild to moderate fever, points towards encephalitis,
which is usually caused by viruses such as Herpes simplex, measles
or arboviruses. A contact and travel history is mandatory.
A comprehensive physical examination is necessary in all cases
of acute delirium. If sepsis is the cause, there may be abdominal
tenderness or urinary retention in urinary tract infection, or
crackles, tachypnoea and hypoxia in respiratory infection. Signs
of meningism, such as neck stiffness, photophobia, papilloedema,
or Kernig’s sign, can be subtle especially in the elderly.
Stroke/head injury
In the elderly, ischaemic stroke is common and acute confusion
often accompanies this if the speech area from an anterior circulation infarction is affected. A history of rapid onset, along with risk
factors such as hypertension, hypercholesterolaemia, or diabetes
points to stroke, and there is usually a focal neurological deficit if
you look carefully. In all age groups subarachnoid or intra-cerebral
bleeding can occur spontaneously and, although more typically
presenting as severe headache or loss of consciousness, may present
as acute confusion.
Concussive head injuries may cause transient disorientation,
while intracranial injuries (cerebral contusion, cerebral haematoma,
extradural or subdural haematoma) may cause more prolonged
confusion that progresses to coma. Trauma may be obvious, but
delays in diagnosis are frequent when the patient is intoxicated
(acute extradural haematoma) or elderly (chronic subdural haematoma) because external injury is not always obvious. Subdural
haematomas can develop after as apparently innocuous a mechanism as a stumble when there is cerebral atrophy and dural veins
are vulnerable to tearing.
Other causes of acute delirium not suggested
by the history
Lack of vital elements for cerebral function
1 Hypoxia. Patients with confusion due to hypoxia are typically
agitated, anxious and breathless. Common causes include pneumonia, heart failure, pulmonary embolus and bronchoconstriction.
2 Shock. Inadequate circulation leading to inadequate cerebral
perfusion. Patients who are shocked are likely to be pale, clammy
and have cool peripheries. Low blood pressure is a late sign.
Depending upon the cause, the patient may be tachycardic.
Systemic factors that impair cerebral function
1 Metabolic causes. Hyponatraemia or hypercalcaemia may present
with acute confusion, particularly if the electrolyte disturbance
develops rapidly: clinical diagnosis may be difficult with little
history. A careful drug history may point to a metabolic cause.
High blood urea due to renal failure can cause confusion and
uraemia is usually associated with muscular twitching and signs
of dehydration.
Patients with hepatic encephalopathy are jaundiced and may
have a flapping tremor. Since alcohol is a common cause, patients
Fletcher_C016.indd 65
may also show features of other alcohol-related disorders, such as
alcohol withdrawal or delirium tremens.
2 Drugs. Routine or excessive use of a wide variety of prescribed
drugs can cause patients to become confused, especially the
elderly. Drug overdose or intoxication typically causes a depressed
conscious level, but some drug effects may present as acute confusion. These might include recreational use of amphetamines,
cocaine or LSD, or overdose of tricyclic antidepressants. Patients
would be younger than the case presented and would typically be
agitated with a rapid pulse and dilated pupils.
Drugs can also cause confusion if they are withdrawn from a
dependent patient. The most common occurrence of this sort
would be alcohol withdrawal. This is typically associated with
coarse tremor, tachycardia, sweating, agitation and occasionally
3 Hypothermia. Young, healthy patients are unlikely to develop
hypothermia unless they suffer prolonged exposure to very cold
conditions or are immersed in water. In these cases hypothermia
is easy to recognise. The diagnosis is more difficult in the elderly,
those dependent on alcohol, or those with chronic diseases, who
may suffer hypothermia in association with other chronic illness,
falls, or poor social conditions.
4 Pain. The superimposition of pain onto another medical
problem (such as dementia) can lead to a sudden worsening
of confusion. A careful history and comprehensive examination
should establish if there is an acute injury or an occult painful
problem such as peritonitis. Remember to check the hips of elderly
patients who have fallen: impacted fractures are common.
Local factors that impair cerebral function
1 Tumours. Primary brain tumours and secondary metastases
may cause acute confusion through direct cerebral effects or
raised intracranial pressure. The diagnosis is suggested by an
associated headache that is worse on coughing and straining, and
associated vomiting. Frontal tumours may present as unusual
behaviour without other symptoms or signs. The onset is usually
insidious, however.
2 Epilepsy. Following a seizure most patients will undergo a period
of confusion as they regain consciousness. This usually resolves
within an hour. If it does not resolve then alternative causes
should be sought.
Psychiatric causes
Psychiatric illness, almost by definition, does not cause acute
confusion states. However, it is important to distinguish between
acute confusion due to an organic cause and acute psychosis due
to a psychiatric cause. The presence of auditory hallucinations and
evidence of thought disorder suggest psychiatric illness.
Case history revisited
Returning to our case, the diagnosis is not clear: many possible
differentials could apply. Although it may be difficult to establish,
a history of possible drug overdose should be ruled out through
a thorough review of medication. A history of transient neurological
symptoms or fluctuating confusion recently, points more toward a
5/13/2009 10:32:45 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Box 16.2 Hodkinson mental test
Box 16.3 Management of confusion
Score one point for each question answered correctly to give total
score out of 10
1 Patient’s age
2 Time (to nearest hour)
3 Address given, for recall at end of test (42 West Street)
4 Name of hospital (or area of town if at home)
5 Current year
6 Patient’s date of birth
7 Current month
8 Years of the First World War
9 Name of monarch (or president)
10 Count backwards from 20 to 1 (no errors allowed but may
correct self)
• Airway, breathing, circulation, don’t ever forget glucose
• Treat any problems identified
transient ischaemic attack and stroke. If there have been falls, then
traumatic brain injury is more likely. Recent dysuria, frequency,
cough, or upper respiratory infection may suggest sepsis.
Our patient is calm and drowsy when left alone, but resists examination, with all limbs moving equally and normally. There is a
small bruise to her left temple and her mucous membranes are
dry. Observations are temperature 37.8°C, pulse 104 beats/minute,
blood pressure 156/80 mmHg, respiratory rate 18/minute, oxygen
saturations 96% on air. Blood glucose is 6.8 mmol/l by meter.
The patient scores 0/10 on the Hodkinson mental test
(see Box 16.2). Heart sounds are normal, and chest examination
reveals a few crackles at both lung bases. There is no peritonism, but
there is vague lower abdominal tenderness. A full neurological
examination is impossible because of lack of understanding and
cooperation, but there is no obvious focal deficit or neck stiffness.
Clinical history
• Paramedics, friends, relatives and contacts
• Events, previous illnesses, drug use, recent illness or trauma
Clinical examination
• Pulse, BP, oxygen saturation, BM, temperature
• Alert bracelets, personal details, drug use, injuries, sources of
• Pupils
• Spontaneous movements, tone and reflexes
• Cardiovascular, respiratory and abdominal examination
Simple tests
• Arterial blood gases
• Full blood count, urea and electrolytes, blood glucose, liver
function tests, calcium, thyroid function
• Urinalysis
• Chest X-ray
CT scan of the brain
Lumbar puncture
Principal working diagnosis – Acute delirium
due to urinary tract infection (with probable
pre-existing cognitive impairment)
The normal glucose level ensures hypoglycaemia is ruled out. The
presence of fever makes sepsis much more likely and the lower
abdominal tenderness suggests urinary tract infection. Infection in
other areas cannot be totally excluded but seem much less likely.
Although there is a bruise, head injury is likely to be coincidental, and there is no marked abnormality of conscious level or focal
weakness. Nevertheless, this important differential diagnosis still
needs consideration.
This first crucial step is to assess the Airway, Breathing and
Circulation, and then check blood sugar (Don’t Ever Forget
Glucose). If any problem is identified it should be treated immediately. This will ensure that the patient does not die or suffer
brain damage while further investigations are undertaken and will
identify if confusion is due to a lack of vital elements for cerebral
It is usually most appropriate to start with the simplest investigations and then work up. Our patient ultimately requires a CT scan,
but scanning a confused and possibly unstable patient is challenging and potentially risky. If the cause of the confusion can be identified by a simple test then difficult procedures may be avoided.
Blood tests may show evidence of infection or metabolic abnormalities. Urinalysis and chest X-ray are required to identify common sites of infection, but routine drug screening is rarely helpful.
It is often possible to control agitation by providing a calm, quiet
and reassuring environment. A number of factors may worsen
agitation and disorientation, particularly in the elderly, but may
be relatively easy to address. Painful conditions should be treated
with appropriate analgesia. Oral fluid intake should be encouraged.
Spectacles and hearing aids should be checked to ensure they are in
good working order. Sedation should only be used as a last resort
and if the patient is at risk of harming themselves.
Management should ultimately be directed at the underlying cause. A
systematic approach will ensure that the patient does not suffer avoidable harm while the diagnosis is sought, that unnecessary tests are
avoided, and that the correct diagnosis is identified (see Box 16.3).
This patient’s blood tests revealed evidence of dehydration and
infection and a urinalysis positive for nitrites and leucocytes.
She settled with intravenous fluids and her family’s reassurance.
A CT brain scan was normal apart from showing cerebral atrophy.
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principal working diagnosis?
Fletcher_C016.indd 66
5/13/2009 10:32:46 AM
Acute Confusion
She was given antibiotics for her urinary tract infection and her
delirium settled after 5 days.
Further reading
British Geriatric Society. Guidelines for the Prevention, Diagnosis and
Management of Delirium in Older People in Hospital, 2006.
Fletcher_C016.indd 67
Brown TM, Boyle MF. ABC of psychological medicine: delirium. Clinical
review. BMJ 2002; 325:644–647.
Meagher DJ. Delirium: optimising management. Clinical review. BMJ 2001;
Patient Plus. Acute Confusional State.
(accessed 21/09/2007).
Young J, Innouye SK. Delirium in older people. Clinical review. BMJ 2007;
5/13/2009 10:32:46 AM
C H A P T E R 17
Shortness of Breath
Kevin Jones and Claire Gardner
A 49-year-old man with type 1 diabetes mellitus presents with
acute shortness of breath. The breathing difficulty had come on
suddenly that morning and had woken him from sleep. His
symptoms have become progressively worse and are associated
with some tightness in his chest. He has difficulty in providing a
comprehensive history as he is unable to talk in full sentences.
When he does talk it is clear that he is wheezing. Over the last
48 hours he had felt unwell and had started coughing, particularly
at night. His diabetes has been reasonably well controlled and
there are no other obvious symptoms. He confirms that he has
never smoked but has been drinking 60 units of alcohol a week
for the last 3 months as a result of stress at work. As a child he
had asthma and there is a family history of ischaemic heart
disease. On direct questioning he has not lost any weight or
experienced any pain or swelling in his legs and he denies any
other risk factors for a pulmonary embolus.
A spontaneous pneumothorax should be considered in the
differential diagnosis of any patient presenting with acute shortness of breath, particularly if the symptoms came on suddenly
(see Figure 17.1). It is important to recognise a pneumothorax
promptly as specific treatments can quickly alleviate the patient’s
symptoms. The story provided by this man is not suggestive
of a pneumothorax, which normally presents with sudden
onset of shortness of breath associated with pleuritic chest pain.
The conditions associated with a pneumothorax are listed in
Box 17.2.
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
There are many different causes of shortness of breath, the
commonest are listed in Box 17.1.
Box 17.1 Causes of shortness of breath
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Pulmonary oedema
Pulmonary embolism
Pleural effusion
Interstitial lung disease
Metabolic acidosis
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
Figure 17.1 Left pneumothorax. Reprinted with permission from BMJ 2005;
Box 17.2 Conditions associated with pneumothorax
Tall, thin male
Cigarette smoking
Underlying lung disease most commonly COPD
Connective tissue disease, e.g. Marfan’s
Fletcher_C017.indd 68
5/13/2009 10:34:43 AM
Shortness of Breath
This man gives a history of having asthma as a child and when
speaking appears to be wheezy. In the last 48 hours he has felt unwell
with a persistent cough and chest tightness. This would be entirely
in keeping with a respiratory infection precipitating bronchospasm
in a susceptible individual. Symptoms are commonly nocturnal,
which is also the case with this patient.
Typically an acute exacerbation of asthma is precipitated by a
respiratory infection, viral being more common than bacterial.
Such an infection may have provoked this episode. Pneumonia is,
therefore, a possibility here. This would usually present with cough
and sputum (yellow, green or brown) and fever. Supportive features
in the history would be pleuritic chest pain, malaise and headache
and any history of travel or contacts. The shortness of breath would
more commonly be of gradual onset but it is possible to become
acutely short of breath with pneumonia. The fact he is not coughing any sputum and has no symptoms of fever does not suggest this
Left ventricular failure
This man’s symptoms could be the result of pulmonary oedema.
Pulmonary oedema presents with acute shortness of breath and
patients frequently are wheezy hence the term ‘cardiac asthma’.
There may be a cough with classically pink, frothy sputum. Patients
with acute pulmonary oedema are often grey, ‘ashen’, have extreme
respiratory distress and their skin is frequently cold and wet. These
clinical features strongly point to an underlying diagnosis of pulmonary oedema rather than another common cause of shortness of
breath, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, when the patient’s
skin is typically warm and dry.
This man is diabetic and has a family history of ischaemic heart
disease. In addition to these risk factors he has complained of tightness in his chest over the last 48 hours which could have been the
result of an acute coronary syndrome. His shortness of breath
could therefore be the result of new cardiac damage giving rise to
pulmonary oedema.
Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA)
Type 1 diabetics often lose their glycaemic control when they
become unwell which may result in diabetic ketoacidosis.
This condition is due to a lack of insulin, which allows the
plasma glucose levels to rise, causing an osmotic diuresis
resulting in loss of salt and water from the body. Significant
fluid losses lead to hypoperfusion resulting in hypotension and
shock. Lack of insulin leads to a change in metabolism causing
ketone production and acidosis. DKA is frequently precipitated
by infection or other intercurrent illness. Patients present in
a variety of ways but common features include nausea,
vomiting, abdominal pain, polydipsia, polyuria, altered consciousness and coma.
As the body tries to compensate for the developing metabolic
acidosis, patients tend to hyperventilate to discharge carbon dioxide. This compensatory hyperventilation (Kussmaul respiration)
can be the most obvious clinical feature and may lead to the erroneous diagnosis of a respiratory illness such as pneumonia or asthma.
Fletcher_C017.indd 69
The absence of chest signs, the smell of ketones on the breath
and a bedside glucose estimation will allow the correct diagnosis
to be made.
Other causes of shortness of breath not
suggested by the history
Pulmonary embolism (PE)
PE may be associated with sudden onset of shortness of breath and
in some individuals this is accompanied by wheezing. There is frequently an obvious risk factor for a PE (see Box 17.3). This man
has no obvious risk factors and the prodrome of symptoms for the
previous 48 hours would not suggest a PE.
In anxiety states which can be exacerbated by chronic alcohol
excess, patients may present with acute shortness of breath (see
Figure 17.2). Such a presentation, however, would be uncommon
in a 49-year-old man without a clear history of anxiety or depression and must remain a diagnosis of exclusion.
Box 17.3 Risk factors for pulmonary embolism
Recent surgery
Previous DVT/PE
Combined oral contraceptive pill/HRT
Nephrotic syndrome
Long flight/car journey
Figure 17.2 Hyperinflated lung fields. Reprinted with permission from BMJ
2006; 332:1261–1263.
5/13/2009 10:34:45 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
This man’s age and the fact that he has never smoked would
mitigate against this as a diagnosis and therefore would not form
part of the differential diagnosis based upon the history.
Case history revisited
On further questioning this man denies any nausea, vomiting or
abdominal pain and is able to confirm that his glycaemic control
has been good in the past 48 hours.
He denies any current chest pain or discomfort and reiterates
that he simply experienced some intermittent tightness in his chest
over the last 48 hours. The cough that he developed has been dry
and unproductive.
On examination he was acutely short of breath with a respiratory rate of 40 breaths/minute. He was pale, clammy, sweaty and
cold to touch. His trachea was central and there were no clinical signs of a pneumothorax or any consolidation. Auscultation
of his chest revealed widespread wheeze but no crackles.
Heart sounds were difficult to hear because of the loud
wheezing. His abdomen was soft and there was no evidence
of peripheral oedema.
The oxygen saturation probe was reading between 76 and 80%
on air and this rose to 90% on high flow oxygen. His pulse was
118 beats/minute and his blood pressure 192/110 mmHg. His peak
flow was unrecordable. An electrocardiogram was taken and a chest
X-ray was requested (see Figure 17.3). A blood sugar estimation
taken at the bedside revealed a glucose level of 15 mmol/l and there
was no smell of ketones on his breath. Arterial blood gases showed
type one respiratory failure.
Figure 17.3 Pulmonary oedema. Reprinted with permission from BMJ 2000;
Fletcher_C017.indd 70
Given the history and examination
findings what is your principle working
Principle working diagnosis – Pulmonary oedema
secondary to an acute coronary syndrome in
a type 1 diabetic with a family history of
ischaemic heart disease
Clinical examination and a chest X-ray rule out pneumothorax.
The chest X-ray reveals pulmonary oedema as responsible for
his wheeze rather than asthma. His electrocardiogram is abnormal with signs of an ST segment elevation myocardial infarction
(STEMI) (see Figure 17.4).
Other clinical signs which point to the diagnosis of acute
pulmonary oedema include fine bi-basal crackles and a third heart
sound. However, absence of these does not exclude the diagnosis as
in this case. The crackles may become more evident as the patient is
treated and able to move more air into the smaller airways. A third
heart sound is often difficult to hear in a poorly, breathless patient
especially if they are wheezy.
His blood sugar is elevated at 15 mmol/l which is not surprising given the myocardial infarction and pulmonary oedema. The
absence of ketones on his breath would be against a diagnosis of
diabetic ketoacidosis. Not everyone can smell ketones on a patient’s
breath and it would be important to confirm the absence of ketones
with the use of ketone sticks in his urine or blood.
Saturations of 76–80% before oxygen confirm that anxietyprovoked hyperventilation was not the diagnosis.
Oxygen, diuretics and nitrates form the mainstay of treatment
of acute pulmonary oedema. The underlying cause must also be
addressed; in this case myocardial ischaemia.
This patient should be sat up and provided with a high inspired
oxygen concentration. Venous access should be obtained and blood
sent for full blood count, urea and electrolytes, cardiac markers,
glucose and lipids. Furosemide (50–100 mg) intravenously (i.v.)
should be administered slowly.
If the blood pressure is sufficient (systolic >90 mmHg) nitrates
can be given, initially in the buccal form, for example, 2 mg buccal
glyceryl trinitrate or two puffs of glyceryl trinitrate (GTN) spray.
Later an intravenous GTN infusion (1–10 mg/hour) is titrated
against blood pressure.
Small doses of intravenous opiates may be useful in some patients
as a vasodilator and anxiolytic, e.g. 2.5 mg of morphine. Use this
with caution, however, and monitor for any signs of respiratory
Urinary output should be monitored.
Most patients respond quite quickly to these therapies. However,
if they are not responding then continuous positive airways
pressure (CPAP) can be beneficial. It forces the fluid out of the
airways and splints them open, thus improving oxygenation. This
should only be used in a patient who can protect their own airway,
is cooperative and is not hypotensive (CPAP impairs venous return
and may exacerbate hypotension).
5/13/2009 10:34:46 AM
Shortness of Breath
Figure 17.4 Anterior myocardial infection
The underlying cause must also be addressed (in this case left
ventricular failure due to a myocardial infarction). Given the
electrocardiogram and the history it is likely that a myocardial
infarction has occurred at some point over the last 48 hours.
He has presented too late to be considered for thrombolysis.
However, in view of his ongoing pain, ECG changes and pulmonary oedema he should be considered for angiography with a
view to angioplasty and coronary stenting. Therefore, a cardiology
opinion must be sought. Prior to this aspirin (300 mg) and
clopidogrel (600 mg) should be given.
This patient’s shortness of breath improved with oxygen, diuretics
and nitrate infusion. He was seen by a cardiologist who immediately
took him to the cardiac catheter laboratory. He had a stent inserted
into his left anterior descending artery. He was monitored in hospital for 5 days, started on secondary prevention and discharged on
a cardiac rehabilitation programme. His follow-up echocardiogram
showed only mild left ventricular impairment.
Fletcher_C017.indd 71
Further reading
Axford J, O’Callaghan C. Medicine, Second Edition. Blackwell Science, Oxford,
Currie GP (Ed.). ABC of COPD. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2007.
Davis RC, Davies MK, Lip GYH. ABC of Heart Failure. Blackwell Publishing,
Oxford, 2007.
Knot A, Polmear A. Practical General Practice: Guidelines for Effective Clinical
Management, Fourth Edition. Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 2004.
Ramrakha P, Moore K. Oxford Handbook of Acute Medicine, Second Edition.
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004.
Simon C, Everitt H, Kendrick T. Oxford Handbook of General Practice, Second
Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002.
Tintinalli J, Kelen G, Stapczynski S, et al. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive
Study Guide, Sixth Edition. McGraw-Hill, New York, 2003.
Wyatt JP, Illingworth R, Graham C, et al. Oxford Handbook of Emergency
Medicine, Third Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
5/13/2009 10:34:46 AM
C H A P T E R 18
Collapse of Unknown Cause
Peter Lawson
A 75-year-old man collapsed in front of his wife after eating his
evening meal. His wife dialled 999 for emergency assessment.
She reported him leaving the table having just completed his meal,
looking vacant and losing his colour, and then collapsing. There
was an initial brief period of arm jerking. He was unconscious for
2–3 minutes and then came round, but he was a bit confused and
a little weaker than usual down the left side. She thinks that he is
now back to normal 2 hours after the event. He has a past history
of a right middle cerebral artery ischaemic stroke 2 years before
and made a very good recovery from this. His medication list
includes: soluble aspirin 75 mg every morning, ramipril 10 mg every
morning, simvastatin 40 mg nightly and gliclazide 80 mg twice
daily. He lives with his wife in a house with no extra support.
He walks with a stick when outdoors. He stopped smoking at the
time of his stroke and drinks no alcohol.
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
His wife has clearly witnessed a brief episode of transient loss of
consciousness (TLOC). The differential diagnosis for this case
will be considered, but be aware that this forms part of a wider
differential diagnosis for people who are found on the floor at home
or who suffer unwitnessed falls or collapse.
A diagnosis of collapse, fall or being found on the floor always
indicates the need for a search for the underlying cause (see
Figure 18.1). Remember that collapse can occur as part of the presentation of acute medical emergencies without loss of consciousness
(e.g. a transient ischaemic attack), with brief loss of consciousness (e.g. myocardial infarction or pulmonary embolism) or with
prolonged loss of consciousness (as part of the presentation of an
anterior circulation stroke or metabolic coma).
In a clinical situation such as described in the case history, a
focused history and examination yields a diagnosis in around 45%
of patients, with a 12 lead ECG investigation yielding a diagnosis in
a further 5% (see Figure 18.2). The history should include a witness
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
report, relevant past medical history, relevant family history and
full review of the medication list wherever possible.
A useful definition of syncope is a transient, self-limiting loss of
consciousness, usually leading to falling. The onset of syncope
is relatively rapid, and the subsequent recovery is spontaneous,
complete, and usually prompt. The underlying mechanism is
a transient global cerebral hypoperfusion (see Brignole et al. 2004
for a more detailed discussion of the definition and management).
From this definition it can be seen that syncope is one cause of
TLOC but the defining feature is an underlying cardiovascular basis
as shown in Box 18.1. It can occur as a single episode or can be
The history from the patient is often complemented by that of
an eyewitness.
Syncope is suggested by a description of draining of colour
from the patient’s face, brief unconsciousness and a rapid
recovery, usually without confusion. Patients with a vasovagal
cause may feel nauseated and unwell for at least several minutes
before and/or after the episode. Syncope on exertion or associated with palpitations or chest pain might lead to the search for
an arrhythmic cause. Collapse following posture change suggests
orthostatic hypotension. Collapse following coughing, swallowing,
head turning, defaecation, pain, strong emotion, fear, or prolonged
standing suggests neurally mediated reflex syncope.
Past medical and family history can reveal clues of a cardiac
cause of syncope through history of cardiac disease (e.g. hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or myocardial infarction) or sudden cardiac
death (due, for example, to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or long
QT syndrome).
Examination can help in the differential diagnosis. Pulse rate and
rhythm can give evidence of an arrhythmia and bradycardia can persist for minutes to hours after a neurally-mediated collapse. Properly
performed lying and standing blood pressure measurement can provide evidence of orthostatic hypotension (see Figure 18.3). Precordial
examination can reveal evidence of structural heart disease and
causes of left ventricular outflow tract obstruction. Signs include a
systolic murmur or abnormality of the apex beat (displacement or
character). A full neurological examination is essential.
The prevalence of the causes of syncope depends on the inclusion criteria and population studied. Table 18.1 gives an example.
Fletcher_C018.indd 72
5/13/2009 10:35:48 AM
Collapse of Unknown Cause
Fall, Collapse, Found on Floor
Metabolic disorder
Sleep disorders
Figure 18.1 Range of mechanisms through which people present with a collapse. TIA, transient ischaemic attack; TLOC, transient loss of consciousness.
Figure 18.2 ECG recordings showing (a) prolonged QT interval and pre-excitation as found in (b) the Wolff–Parkinson–White syndrome.
Box 18.1 Syncope classification
Neurally mediated reflex syncope
• Includes vasovagal episodes, carotid sinus syndrome, situational
syncope, e.g. micturition
Measure BP after lying flat,
relaxing for 5 minutes
then standing up.
• e.g. with autonomic failure, volume depletion and medication
Cardiac arrhythmias
• Bradycardia and tachycardia
Structural cardiac or cardiopulmonary disease
• Includes valvular heart disease, obstructive cardiomyopathy and
acute conditions such as myocardial infarction and pulmonary
• This is rare, e.g. subclavian steal syndrome
Measure BP at intervals of 1 minute
up to 5 minutes or when the patient
reports symptoms.
Most forms of epilepsy result in TLOC or a state of altered awareness. An eyewitness account of the events surrounding the attack is
very important if it is available. Supportive features in the history
include an olfactory or auditory aura, tongue biting, incontinence, tonic and clonic phases, and confusion and drowsiness for
more than a few minutes after the attack. However, the presence
or absence of any of these features does not conclude or preclude
the diagnosis as each may occur as a feature in other causes
of TLOC.
Fletcher_C018.indd 73
Figure 18.3 Correct method of measuring for orthostatic hypotension. BP,
blood pressure.
The combination of TLOC and jerking will make many witnesses
consider that the individual has experienced an epileptic seizure.
However, brief jerking is often reported as part of the response to
cerebral hypoperfusion and does not necessarily confirm a diagnosis of epilepsy. A clear description of the observed movements
5/13/2009 10:35:48 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Table 18.1 Final diagnosis in 650 patients presenting to Accident and
Emergency with presumed syncope (adapted from Sarasin et al. 2001).
Cause of presentation
Bradycardia or pause
AV block
Ventricular tachycardia
Supraventricular tachycardia
Acute coronary syndrome
Aortic stenosis
Pulmonary embolism
Vasodepressor syncope
Orthostatic hypotension
Carotid sinus syndrome
Incomplete evaluation
and any preceding tonic phase is needed. Post-event confusion,
sometimes lasting several minutes, can also be a feature of cerebral hypoperfusion although longer periods of confusion make the
chances of underlying epilepsy more likely.
Clinical signs after a seizure are usually confined to injuries sustained during the collapse and subsequent muscle spasms (such
as head injury, tongue biting and shoulder dislocation). A full
neurological examination is mandatory and may show signs of a
focal lesion leading to the seizure or raised intracranial pressure.
Sometimes focal weakness or paralysis persists in the post-ictal
period (Todd’s paresis).
Transient ischaemic attack (TIA)
It is very unusual for a TIA to present with loss of consciousness.
If it does, there should be associated neurological signs reflecting
posterior circulation ischaemia. These are motor or sensory dysfunction commonly in association with diplopia, dysarthria, ataxia,
and/or vertigo. Without these signs, TIA should not appear in the
differential diagnosis of someone presenting with a collapse that
includes TLOC. The presence or absence of carotid bruits does
not help determine the diagnosis and examination for bruits has
limited function in the patient presenting with TLOC and no focal
neurological signs.
Case history revisited
Reviewing the history, it is likely this man has experienced an episode of syncope. The length of confusion was unhelpful and could
have pointed to syncope or a seizure. The arm jerking could also
have pointed to a seizure but it was most likely due to cerebral
irritation from hypoperfusion. The brief arm weakness was also
probably due to cerebral hypoperfusion accentuating the weakness
from his previous stroke.
Fletcher_C018.indd 74
He looks well and is fully alert. Baseline observations show
temperature 36.8°C, pulse 76 beats/minute regular, supine blood
pressure 146/80 mmHg, oxygen saturations 98% on air. Heart
sounds are normal. A full neurological examination discovered a
very mild left arm and leg weakness, compatible with that recorded
in his medical notes at a recent clinic visit. Otherwise there were no
positive neurological findings.
His blood pressure fell to 120/70 mmHg at 1 minute of standing,
and 106/62 mmHg after 3 minutes at which point he mentioned
‘dizziness’ (which was a light headed sensation rather than a
spinning feeling) and feeling ‘unwell’.
Immediate investigations
When a patient presents with TLOC a 12 lead ECG is mandatory.
Other investigations will be indicated by history and examination
and in particular, cardiac enzymes and D-dimers should only be
requested if myocardial infarction or pulmonary embolism are
strongly suspected.
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principal working diagnosis?
Principal working diagnosis – Syncope due to
orthostatic hypotension
The history and negative findings on neurological examination
point to syncope as the most likely diagnosis. In addition, this
man has a substantial fall in blood pressure when he stands. The
definition of orthostatic hypotension includes a measured drop of
20 mmHg in systolic BP or 10 mmHg in diastolic BP on standing.
This makes orthostatic hypotension the most likely diagnosis in this
case, but there now has to be a search for the underlying cause(s) of
this drop in blood pressure.
In this case, looking for the cause(s) of orthostatic hypotension
requires a thorough review of the medication, level of hydration
and any evidence of blood loss, hypoadrenalism or diagnoses associated with autonomic failure.
If the cause of syncope is unclear and the patient has recovered,
the next decision is whether he requires admission to hospital. This
depends on the risks of recurrence and sudden death, which are
determined to a large extent by whether the syncope is cardiac or
non-cardiac in origin. The American College of Physicians (ACP)
take account of this when they recommend who should be admitted
for observation after a syncopal episode (see Box 18.2). Although
the period of observation is not stated, overnight ECG monitoring
should be sufficient.
Most subsequent investigations can be performed as an outpatient. A 24-hour ECG recording is often performed but it is frequently unrewarding. The use of clinical features improves the
diagnostic yield and can focus the use of 24-hour ECG recording
on appropriate patients (see Box 18.3).
5/13/2009 10:35:50 AM
Collapse of Unknown Cause
Box 18.2 American College of Physicians criteria for
hospitalisation after syncope (taken from Linzer et al. 1997)
Box 18.3 Risk of dysrhythmic cause for syncope (adapted from
Sarasin et al. 2003)
Definitely hospitalise patients who meet any of the following
• A history of chest pain
• A past history of coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure,
or ventricular arrhythmia
• Physical examination findings of congestive heart failure, valvular
disease, or focal neurological deficit
• An electrocardiogram showing ischaemia or infarction*,
arrhythmia, long QTc or bundle branch block
Risk factors
• Abnormal ECG (excluding non-specific ST and T wave changes)
• History of congestive cardiac failure
• Age >65 years
Strongly consider hospitalising patients who meet any of the
following criteria:
• A history of exertional syncope (in the absence of physical
examination evidence of aortic stenosis or other left ventricular
outflow obstruction), frequent syncope, or age >70 years
• Physical examination findings of tachycardia, moderate to severe
orthostatic changes, or injury
• Suspected cardiac disease
Numbers of risk factors
Risk of finding dysrhythmia on
24 hour ECG or loop recording
This information can direct the requesting of 24 hour ECG
recordings in people presenting with syncope. Unfortunately
no guideline can cover all clinical situations and individual
features such as evidence of prolonged QT interval or features of
left ventricular outflow obstruction will determine the speed of
*Most studies excluded non-specific ST and T wave changes
If the cause of syncope is unclear the patient should be referred
for a specialist opinion on the need for cardiovascular investigations such as tilt table testing and carotid sinus massage to look
for neurocardiogenic syncope and carotid sinus syndrome or for
more prolonged heart rate and rhythm recording. A CT brain scan
is indicated by clinical suspicion of a neurological event. In this case
a CT scan is not necessary.
This man was admitted to hospital for assessment. His blood tests
and ECG were normal. It transpired that his ramipril dose had
recently been increased, and his blood pressure settled on resumption of a lower dose.
Question: Can this man be allowed
to drive?
This question needs addressing whenever someone presents with loss
of consciousness. It is wise always to consult the DVLA Fitness to
Drive regulations (
Fletcher_C018.indd 75
to check the precise wording of each scenario. This man has experienced an explained syncopal episode which should not recur in the
sitting position and he is allowed to continue driving.
Further reading
Brignole M, Alboni P, Benditt DG, et al. Guidelines on Management
(Diagnosis and Treatment) of Syncope – Update 2004. The Task Force on
Syncope, European Society of Cardiology. Europace 2004; 6:467–537.
Linzer M, Yang EH, Estes NA III, et al. Diagnosing syncope. 1. Value of
history, physical examination, and electrocardiography: Clinical Efficacy
Assessment Project of the American College of Physicians. Annals of
Internal Medicine 1997; 126:989–996.
Linzer M, Yang EH, Estes NA III, et al. Diagnosing syncope. 2. Unexplained
syncope: Clinical Efficacy Assessment Project of the American College of
Physicians. Annals of Internal Medicine 1997; 127:76–86.
Sarasin FP, Louis-Simonet M, Carballo D, et al. Prospective evaluation of
patients with syncope: a population-based study. American Journal of
Medicine 2001; 111:177–184.
Sarasin FP, Hanusa BH, Perneger T, et al. A risk score to predict arrhythmias
in patients with unexplained syncope. Academic Emergency Medicine 2003;
5/13/2009 10:35:50 AM
C H A P T E R 19
Abdominal Pain
Suzanne Mason and Alastair Pickering
A 24-year-old woman presents at about midday. She gives a
history of grumbling lower abdominal pain for the past 2 days and
feeling generally unwell. This morning she went to work in her
office and collapsed with severe pain localised to the lower right
side. She vomited after coming round but continues with
moderate to severe pain and is sweating. Her work colleagues
describe her as going very pale. Her past history includes a course
of doxycycline last month, for a Chlamydia infection, and stable
asthma for which she occasionally takes a salbutamol inhaler. She
also takes the combined oral contraceptive pill. She denies any
previous surgery and prior to this incident she had no urinary
symptoms or change in bowel habit. She is single, smokes
occasionally, and drinks about 16 units at weekends.
Table 19.1 Causes of lower abdominal pain.
Systems causes
Acute appendicitis
Terminal ileitis
• inflammatory
• infective
Meckel’s diverticulitis
Colonic pathology
• perforation
• cancer
• diverticulitis
• adenitis
• ischaemia
Pancreatitis (usually generalised)
• cystitis
• pyelonephritis
• renal
• ureteric
• bladder
• cyst
• torsion
• salpingitis
• endometritis
• cervicitis
Ectopic pregnancy
Endometriosis (cyclical)
Lower lobe pneumonia
Diabetic ketoacidosis
Nerve root pain
• shingles
• spinal lesion
Question: What differential diagnosis
would you consider from the history?
Lower abdominal pain can be considered as the presentation
symptom for pathology in two different anatomical ‘systems’:
gastrointestinal and urological. In women a gynaecological cause
must also be considered. More unusually it can be a presenting
symptom for some systemic illnesses. Possible causes of lower
abdominal pain are given in Table 19.1.
Acute appendicitis
Acute appendicitis is usually considered in all cases of lower
abdominal pain (see Figure 19.1). Presentation is often classically
described as non-specific central abdominal pain (as a result of midgut visceral inflammation) that subsequently localises to the right
iliac fossa (from parietal peritoneal irritation). Its course is gradual
and can present with perforation causing a sudden increase in pain.
Sometimes an inflamed appendix causes vague more intermittent
pain which can radiate to the right upper quadrant or left iliac
fossa, depending on its location and orientation. The patient will
often have systemic symptoms such as fever, vomiting and anorexia.
Diagnosis is often made clinically with localised tenderness,
guarding, rebound and percussion tenderness at McBurney’s point
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis. Edited by F. Morris and A. Fletcher.
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4051-7063-5.
(one-third of the way along line from the anterior superior iliac
spine to the umbilicus).
Terminal ileitis
The terminal ileum can become acutely inflamed from both
inflammatory and infective causes. Crohn’s disease presents
before the age of 25 years in about 60% of cases and most
Fletcher_C019.indd 76
5/13/2009 10:36:53 AM
Abdominal Pain
Table 19.2 Systemic manifestations of inflammatory bowel disease.
Anatomical region
Weight loss
Growth retardation
Signs of malabsorption
Aphthous ulcers
Erythema nodosum
Pyoderma gangrenosum
Musculoskeletal (joints)
Entropathic arthropathy
• asymmetrical
• large joints
Ankylosing spondylitis
Fatty liver
• chronic active
• granulomatous
Amyloid (rare)
Gallstones (terminal ileum disease)
Sclerosing cholangitis (UC)
Bile-duct carcinoma (UC)
Ureteric calculi
• oxalate (terminal ileum disease)
• uric acid (total colitis or ileostomy)
Amyloid (rare)
• iron
• vitamin B12
• folate
Arterial and venous thrombosis
Figure 19.1 Inflamed appendix.
commonly affects the terminal ileum. On average symptoms are
present intermittently for up to 5 years prior to diagnosis. Crohn’s
disease differs from ulcerative colitis in that it can affect any area
of the gastrointestinal tract and involves the whole thickness of
the bowel wall (transmural inflammation) leading to serosal
inflammation. This can irritate the parietal peritoneum leading
to localised pain and tenderness, mimicking appendicitis. There
is often a background history of diarrhoea, colicky abdominal
pain, weight loss and general malaise (exacerbated during an acute
attack) and a careful history may elicit evidence of systemic manifestations of inflammatory bowel disease (see Table 19.2).
Ovarian pain
Ovarian cysts are common and can be considered normal if
small (<5 cm). Non-neoplastic cysts are caused by different
mechanisms but can cause pain with rupture, haemorrhage or
expansion (failure to rupture). Cysts are also found in neoplastic
ovarian pathology.
Careful history taking may identify recurrent grumbling pains
related to the menstrual cycle and bimanual examination may
reveal a palpable ovary or mobile mass. Localised peritonism is a
result of the contents of the cyst irritating the peritoneal lining of
the abdominal cavity.
A pedunculated cyst or tumour may twist leading to venous
occlusion, engorgement and pain that can be intermittent as the
torsion twists and untwists. Again a mass would be expected but
may not be palpable. Ovarian pathology is usually visible on pelvic
Ovulation pain (mittelschmerz, from the German for middle
pain) occurs around day 14 of the menstrual cycle. There is usually
a history of previous episodes and it is more common in teenagers
and older women.
Pelvic infection (pelvic inflammatory disease)
This is mostly infection of the Fallopian tubes (salpingitis) but
can involve other pelvic structures. The most common cause is
chlamydial infection from sexual transmission (90%) of cases,
with childbirth or instrumentation accounting for 10%. Acute
salpingitis presents with fever, severe abdominal pain, nausea
Fletcher_C019.indd 77
and vomiting and can be localised unilaterally (although is more
commonly bilateral pain). There is vaginal discharge with cervicitis and bleeding with endometritis. Vaginal examination will reveal
pelvic tenderness and cervical excitation.
Ectopic pregnancy
This occurs in approximately 1 in 100 pregnancies and risk factors
include: previous damage to the Fallopian tubes from salpingitis or
surgery; previous ectopic pregnancies; endometriosis; IUCD or the
progesterone-only pill (see Figure 19.2).
Typical presentation is with sudden onset of lower abdominal pain
and vaginal bleeding after a period of amenorrhoea (6–8 weeks).
The pain may precede bleeding and radiate to the shoulder tip
(suggesting diaphragmatic irritation) or perineum (suggesting
pelvic irritation) (see Figure 19.3).
This is a potentially fatal condition and should be considered
in all women of childbearing age presenting with acute, severe
abdominal pain. Concerning features include localised abdominal
peritonism, shock, and history of a collapse.
5/13/2009 10:36:53 AM
ABC of Emergency Differential Diagnosis
Meckel’s diverticulum
Fallopian tube
Present in 2% of the population, this remnant of the vitellointestinal duct forms a blind ending pouch on the terminal ileum,
approximately 50 cm from the ileocaecal junction. Mostly asymptomatic this may present with acute or chronic symptoms and can
mimic acute appendicitis if inflamed or ruptured. Chronic symptoms include rectal bleeding. A Meckel’s diverticulum should always
be looked for at operation on finding a normal appendix.
Mesenteric adenitis
Figure 19.2 Ectopic pregnancy.
More commonly seen in children than adults, inflammation and
enlargement of the mesenteric lymph glands can lead to colicky
abdominal pain. It is associated with viral illness, often an upper
respiratory tract or pharyngeal infection, and may present acutely.
Fever is typically higher than with appendicitis (greater than
38.5°C) and resolves rapidly.
Diabetic ketoacidosis
Severe dehydration and ketone production with metabolic acidosis
lead to hyperventilation and can cause generalised abdominal pain
which can mimic an ‘acute abdomen’. It would be unusual to have
tenderness in the right iliac fossa.
Figure 19.3 Ectopic pregnancy: free blood within the peritoneal cavity can
track superiorly to irritate the diaphragm (leading to shoulder tip referred
pain), or inferiorly to cause perineal pain.
Renal calculi
There are several causes for calculi including infection, anatomical
reasons and hypercalcaemia. Their presentation is dependent on
the site of the calculus. Pelvic (staghorn) calculi will present with
loin pain and upper urinary tract infection.
Ureteric calculi typically present with severe, colicky unilateral
pain radiating from loin to groin and even to testes or labia. They
can be associated with haematuria and about 90% are radioopaque on plain X-ray. It is less common to find abdominal wall
tenderness. A common concern is the possibility of an undiagnosed
abdominal aortic aneurysm which can present similarly, especially
in those over the age of 55 years.
Other causes of lower abdominal pain not
suggested by the history
Urinary tract infection
Lower urinary tract infections present with the typical constellation of symptoms of dysuria, frequency, urgency and suprapubic
pain. Bedside dipstick testing can guide this diagnosis. Upper tract
infections often have associated systemic symptoms of fever, rigors,
anorexia with some flank pain and abdominal tenderness.
Case history revisited
Our patient has had grumbling pains for 2 days and presents with
sudden, severe pain and collapse. More information is needed from
the history for specific conditions to be excluded, for example:
• When was her last period?
• Has she had any fever or rigors?
• Has she had any previous bleeding (per vaginum or per rectum)?
• Have there been any previous abdominal symptoms?
Her recent course of doxycycline is relevant because it was used
to treat Chlamydia and suggests pelvic infection, but the collapse
points towards ectopic pregnancy despite contraception. Ovarian
pain, salpingitis, and appendicitis are possibilities because of the site
and character of the pain. Urological causes are less likely because
of the absence of urinary or colicky symptoms.
She looks pale and clammy, with cool hands and feet. Observations
are: pulse 112 beats/minute, blood pressure 115/85 mmHg, temperature 36.4°C, blood glucose meter 6.7 mmol/l, respiratory rate
30/minute, oxygen saturations 98% on air. Heart and chest
examination is normal. There is marked tenderness in the right iliac
fossa with peritonism on percussion. The rest of the abdomen is
diffusely tender. Urine testing by dipstick reveals no infection but
is positive on pregnancy testing.
Caecal cancer
In older people the caecum itself may be abnormal. Caecal distension secondary to large bowel obstruction may cause localised pain
and tenderness in the right iliac fossa; however, a palpable mass
would usually be present. More generalised abdominal distension
is also usually evident but an ascending colon stenosis is possible.
Localised caecal malignancy can also lead to peritoneal irritation
through local perforation or invasion but again a mass should be
Fletcher_C019.indd 78
Question: Given the history and
examination findings what is your
principal working diagnosis?
Principal working diagnosis – Ruptured ectopic
Examination shows cardiovascular compromise with a tachycardia
and tachypnoea. Peritonism in the right iliac fossa could represent
5/13/2009 10:36:54 AM
Abdominal Pain
acute appendicitis and rupture, but the positive pregnancy test
makes ectopic pregnancy a principal diagnosis. The normality of
the rest of the examination and an otherwise negative urine test
makes the rest of the differentials much less likely.
urinary tract infection) and a negative pregnancy test (excluding
ectopic pregnancy). None of these investigations can accurately
confirm appendicitis, however.
Our patient needs emergency investigation and treatment. She
should be resuscitated with oxygen and intravenous fluids via large
bore cannulae. Blood tests for urgent cross match, full blood count,
and β-HCG should be taken at the same time as an emergency
referral to a senior gynaecological surgeon. Utilisation of the FAST
ultrasound technique may identify free fluid within the peritoneum
or recto-vesical pouch and aid rapid diagnosis.
If ectopic pregnancy is excluded, an alternative diagnosis should
be sought. Investigation would include abdominal CT scanning,
urethral and endocervical swabs, and a period of careful observation. Investigations supporting a diagnosis of appendicitis include
an elevated white cell count (aids in exclusion of non-suppurative
gynaecological pathology), negative urinary dipstick (excluding
Our patient responded to fluid resuscitation and was taken urgently
to the operating theatre where a bleeding ectopic pregnancy
was ligated and removed. Although she needed a 10 unit blood
transfusion perioperatively she made a good recovery. A review of
the British National Formulary found doxycycline to be enzymeinducing, resulting in reduced contraceptive efficacy.
Fletcher_C019.indd 79
Further reading
Grace PA, Borley NR. Surgery at a Glance, Second Edition. Blackwell
Publishing, Oxford, 2002.
Moore KL, Dalley AF. Clinically Oriented Anatomy, Fourth Edition. Lippincott,
Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore, 1999.
5/13/2009 10:36:54 AM
Fletcher_C019.indd 80
5/13/2009 10:36:54 AM
Note: Page numbers in italic refer to figures
and/or tables
ABCD2 score 25, 25
ABCDEFG assessment 66
abdominal aortic aneurysm see aortic
abdominal pain
epigastric 26–9
lower 76–9
amoebic liver 14, 15, 16
cerebral 3, 22, 64
epidural 62
Achilles tendon rupture 6, 6, 7
acute appendicitis 76, 77
acute coronary syndrome 9, 11, 53, 69,
70–71, 74
acute unilateral peripheral vestibulopathy 42,
43, 47
Addison’s disease 3, 28
adenitis, mesenteric 78
acute ingestion 50, 50
acute withdrawal 48–9, 49, 51, 65
benefits 48
contents of beverages 48
and head injury 49
and infection 50
intoxication 48–51
and level of consciousness 1, 1
medical problems related to 49
and palpitations 57
recommended amounts 48
alcoholic ketosis 50
amitriptyline 2
amoebic liver abscess 14, 15, 16
anaphylactoid reactions 53
anaphylaxis 53–4, 55
angina pectoris 9–10
management 10–11
outcome 11–12
and level of consciousness 1
signs of overdose 2, 2
aortic aneurysm 60, 62, 78
investigation 63
leaking/symptomatic 27, 62, 63
aortic dissection 10, 10
appendicitis, acute 76, 77
arboviruses 65
arrhythmias 57–8
and cardiogenic shock 53
and chest pain 9, 10, 11
and delirium tremens 49
and metabolic disturbance 24
and syncope 72, 73, 74, 75
arterial insufficiency and calf pain 7
and Baker’s cyst 5
gonococcal 34
in Lyme disease 14
reactive 35
septic 34
asthma 68, 69
‘cardiac’ 69
exacerbation 38
atrial fibrillation 58
atrial flutter 58
atrial tachycardia 58
atrioventricular block 58
auras in migraine 23, 31
avian influenza 14
back pain 60–63
differential diagnosis 60
mechanical 60–61
red flag symptoms 60
referred to calf 7
Baker’s cyst 6
rupture 5–6, 7
Bell’s palsy 23–4, 24
Bence-Jones protein, urinary 62
benign paroxysmal positional
vertigo 43
and level of consciousness 1
in seizures 49
biliary colic 26
blood tests in angina pectoris 10–11
malignant disease 62
pain 62
bradyarrhythmias 53, 72
brain, space-occupying lesions 3, 22, 23, 31, 31,
64, 65
breathlessness 37, 68–71
causes 68
in pneumonia 38
in pulmonary embolism 38
caecal cancer 78
caffeine and palpitations 58, 59
calcium pyrophosphate dihydrate 34–5
muscle injury 5
pain 5–8
squeeze test 6, 6
Campylobacter 35
carbon monoxide poisoning 3
cardiac markers in angina pectoris 11
carotid sinus massage 75
carpal tunnel syndrome 24, 24
cauda equina syndrome 60, 61, 61, 62
and calf pain 6, 7
and fever 14
cerebral abscess 3, 22, 64
cerebral artery aneurysm 30
cerebral infarction 2, 22, 64
cervical shock 18, 21
cancer 20
erosions 20
polyps 20
chest pain
cardiac 9–12
causes 9
musculoskeletal 3, 9, 10
pleuritic 37–40
chest X-ray
angina pectoris 11
pulmonary embolism 40
pulmonary oedema 70
tuberculosis 14, 16
Chikungunya fever 14
Chlamydia 20, 35
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
(COPD) 39
and breathlessness 70
exacerbation 10, 38
collapse 72–5
coma 1–4
atypical clinical signs 3
metabolic causes 3
psychogenic 3
common peroneal nerve, neuropathy 24
computerised tomographic pulmonary
angiogram 40, 40
confusion 64–7
management 66
Fletcher_Index.indd 81
5/13/2009 10:38:03 AM
consciousness, loss of 1–4
transient 72–5
continuous positive airways pressure 70
COPD see chronic obstructive pulmonary
coronary artery disease 9, 75
costochondritis 10
Crohn’s disease 76–7, 77
crystal arthropathy 34–5, 35
CT scan
in acute confusion 66
brain tumour 31
in head injury 49, 50
intracranial haemorrhage 2
in syncope 75
CTPA 40, 40
Cullen’s sign 27
Cushing’s disease 3
Baker’s 5–6, 6, 7
cerebral 3
ovarian 20, 77
decompression sickness 24
deep venous thrombosis 6–7, 6, 7–8, 39, 40
delirium, acute 64–7
delirium tremens 49, 65
diabetes mellitus 48
and breathlessness 69
and coma 1
and confusion 64
and ketoacidosis 64, 64, 69, 78
and weakness 22
diazepam 47
dilated cardiomyopathy 53
discitis 62
dizziness 41–4
driving, fitness to 75
affecting conscious level 1–2, 1
anaphylaxis due to 53
confusion due to 65
intoxication 65
overdose 65
palpitations due to 57, 58
DUB 20
duodenitis 26
duplex ultrasound in deep venous
thrombosis 8
DVT 6–7, 6, 7–8, 39, 40
dysfunctional uterine bleeding 20
dyspnoea see breathlessness
encephalitis 2, 50
causes 3
and confusion 64, 65
and thunderclap headache 30
enteric fever 14, 16–17
epidural abscess 62
epilepsy 23, 73–4
and confusion 65, 73–4
and intoxication 48
epinephrine 54
Epipen® 54
Epstein–Barr virus infection 14
erythema chronicum migrans 15
exercise testing
in angina pectoris 11, 11
contraindications to 11
extradural haematoma 65
high 13–17
non-infective causes 16
fistula, perilymph 43
Fitness to Drive regulations 75
foot drop 24, 24
24-hour Holter monitoring 59, 74
angina pectoris 10, 11
atrial flutter 58
cardiogenic shock 53
loop event recorders 59
pulmonary embolism 40
in syncope 74, 75
in transient loss of consciousness 72, 73
Wolff–Parkinson–White syndrome 72, 73
ectopic pregnancy 18–19, 19, 77, 78
Ehlers–Danlos syndrome 38
Fletcher_Index.indd 82
gallstones 26, 26
gamma-hydroxybutyric acid 1
gastritis 26
gastrocnemius muscle 5
injury 5
gastro-oesophageal reflux 10
Glasgow Coma Score 1, 1
gliclazide 22
glucose test 1, 64
gonococcal arthritis 34
gout 34–5, 35, 36, 36
Grey Turner’s sign 27
haemarthrosis 35
haematuria 13, 78
microscopic 62, 63
Haemophilus influenzae 38
haemoptysis 13, 37, 38, 38, 39
in alcohol withdrawal 49, 51
in psychosis 65
head impulse test 45, 45
head injury 3
and alcohol 49
and confusion 65
and neurogenic shock 54
NICE guidelines for CT scan 50
and subdural haematoma 22–3
head-thrust test 43, 44, 45
acute 30–33
in brain tumour 23, 65
in carbon monoxide poisoning 3
in encephalitis 65
and intracranial haemorrhage 2
in meningitis 13
in pneumonia 13, 38, 69
in post-ictal state 48
in stroke 65
tension 31–2, 32
thunderclap 30, 30
in toxic shock syndrome 54
in typhoid 14
see also migraine
hearing loss
acute 43
in Ménière’s disease 42
heart beat
awareness of 57
premature 57, 59
Helicobacter pylori 26
eradication 29
helminthiasis 14
hemiplegic migraine 23
hepatic encephalopathy 3, 65
herpes simplex 3, 65
and Bell’s palsy 23
HIV infection 3
and fever 14
and joint pain 34, 35
Hodkinson mental test 66, 66
Holter monitoring 59, 74
hydrocephalus 3, 4
hypercalcaemia 3, 28, 65
hyperglycaemia 1, 54, 64
hyperkalaemia 24
hypernatraemia 3
and exercise testing 11
and gout 35
and intracranial haemorrhage 2, 4
and ischaemic heart disease 9
and placental abruption 19
in post-ictal state 48
and stroke 22, 25, 25, 65
hyperthyroidism 3
hypertrophic cardiomyopathy 10, 72
hyperuricaemia 35
in anxiety 69, 69
compensatory 69
hypocalcaemia 3, 24
hypoglycaemia 1, 22, 48, 49, 64
hypokalaemia 24
hyponatraemia 3, 65
hypopituitarism 3
orthostatic 72, 73, 74–5
in shock 53
hypothermia 65
hypothyroidism 3
hypovolaemia 52, 53
hypoxia 3, 65
ileitis, terminal 76–7
impedance plethysmography, in deep venous
thrombosis 8
and alcohol intake 50
and loss of consciousness 2, 3
systemic 52
inflammatory bowel disease 7, 76–7, 77
influenza, avian 14
inter-menstrual bleeding 20
intervertebral disc prolapse 61, 61
intoxication 48–51
intracranial aneurysm 32, 33
intracranial haemorrhage 2, 2, 4, 30, 30, 32, 33,
49, 65
5/13/2009 10:38:04 AM
intra-parenchymal haemorrhage 2, 2
ischaemic heart disease 9–10, 53, 70–1
risk factors 9
acutely painful 34–6
aspiration 36, 36
trauma 35
ketoacidosis, diabetic 64, 64, 69, 78
ketosis, alcoholic 50
Korsakoff ’s psychosis 50
Kussmaul respiration 69
labyrinthitis 43
laparoscopy, in ectopic pregnancy 19
laparotomy, in ectopic pregnancy 19
left ventricular failure 69
Legionella 13, 38
leishmaniasis 14
Listeria meningitis 13, 65
liver, amoebic abscess 14, 15, 16
locked in syndromes 2
long QT syndrome 72
loop event recorders 59
lumbar puncture
in meningitis 16
in subarachnoid haemorrhage 33
lumbosacral radiculopathies 24
lung cancer 10
Lyme disease 14, 15
McBurney’s point 76
malaria 13
measles 65
Meckel’s diverticulum 78
median nerve, neuropathy 24
melaena 52
Ménière’s disease 42
meningeal irritation 31, 31
meningitis 50
and acute headache 31, 31
and altered level of consciousness 2
causes 3
and fever 13
Listeria 13, 65
pneumococcal 13, 64–5
rash 2, 15
menorrhagia 20
menstruation, prolonged/heavy
periods 20
mesenteric adenitis 78
metabolic acidosis 50, 53, 68
migraine 30–31
differentiation from tension
headache 32
features 31
focal 42
hemiplegic 23
complete 18, 19
delayed/missed 18
incomplete 18, 19, 21
inevitable 18, 19
spontaneous 18
threatened 18, 19
mittelschmerz 77
Fletcher_Index.indd 83
multiple organ dysfunction syndrome 53
Murphy’s sign 26
musculoskeletal pain
abdominal 27
chest 9, 10
Mycoplasma pneumoniae 38
myeloma 62
myocardial infarction 9, 10, 11, 72
atypical presentation 27, 27
and cardiogenic shock 53
ST-elevation (STEMI) 53, 70–71
naloxone 1
narrow complex tachycardia 57–8
in acute unilateral peripheral
vestibulopathy 42, 42
and alcohol ingestion 49, 49, 50, 50
and brain tumour 23
in diabetic ketoacidosis 69
and gallstones 26
in migraine 31
in myocardial infarction 27
in pancreatitis 27
in panic attack 58
in pelvic inflammatory disease 77
in peptic ulcer perforation 27
in post-ictal state 48
in pregnancy 20
in typhoid 14
and vasovagal syncope 72
Neisseria meningitidis 2
neurally mediated reflex syncope 72, 73
norethisterone 20
nystagmus 41, 43, 44, 47, 51
oestrogens 20
and level of consciousness 1–2, 1
signs of ingestion 2
orthostatic hypotension 72, 73, 74–5
osteoarthritis 35
osteomyelitis 62
ovarian cysts 20, 77
ovulation pain 77
bone 62
calf 5–8
and confusion 65
in ectopic pregnancy 78
musculoskeletal 9, 10, 27
ovarian 77
ovulation 77
see also abdominal pain; back pain;
chest pain
palpitations 57–9
causes 57
investigation 57
symptoms associated 57
pancreatitis 27, 27
and back pain 62
and shock 54
panic attack 58, 58
paratyphoid 14
paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia 58, 59
pelvic inflammatory disease 77
peptic ulcer 26
perforation 27, 28–9
pericardial tamponade 53
pericarditis 38, 39
perilymph fistula 43
periodic paralysis 24
peripheral neuropathy 24, 24
peritonitis 27, 28
placenta praevia 20, 20
placental abruption 19–20, 19, 20
plantaris muscle 5
rupture 5
pleurisy 37
viral 38
basal 28
and breathlessness 69
and chest pain 10, 37–8
and fever 13–14
headache in 32
right lower lobe 37
pneumothorax 38, 39, 53, 68, 68
conditions associated 68
polyarthritis, initial presentation 35
popliteal aneurysm 7
post-coital bleeding 20
posterior fossa tumour 43
post-ictal paresis 23, 74
post-ictal state 3, 48
ectopic 18–19, 19, 77, 78
of unknown location 19
prochlorperazine 47
progesterone 20
prostatitis 62
pseudogout 34–5
psychosis 65
pulmonary embolism 39–40, 40
and abdominal pain 28
and breathlessness 69
and cardiogenic shock 53
and chest pain 10, 38
risk factors 69
pulmonary infarction 38
risk factors 38
pulmonary oedema 69, 70–71, 70
pyelonephritis 62
headache in 32
radial nerve, neuropathy 24
raised intracranial pressure 2, 23
rash in meningitis 2, 2, 13, 15
reactive arthritis 35
renal calculi 78
renal colic 28, 62
respiratory tract
and chest pain 9, 10
infection 69
lung cancer 10
pulmonary infarction 38, 38
pulmonary oedema 69, 70–71, 70
see also pulmonary embolism
Rinne’s tuning fork test 43, 44
Romberg test 43, 46, 46
rose spots 16
ROSIER scale 22, 23
Ross River fever 14
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saddle paraesthesiae 61, 62
salpingectomy 19
salpingitis 77
salpingostomy 19
Saturday night palsy 24
schistosomiasis 14
sciatica 61
seizures 73, 74
in alcohol withdrawal 49
confusion following 65, 73–4
and fever 16
post-ictal state 3, 48
post-traumatic 50
threshold 48
and Todd’s paresis 23
sepsis 52, 55–6, 55
and confusion 64–5
definitions and clinical features 54
meningococcal 13
septic arthritis 34
septic shock 13, 52, 54, 55–6, 55
septicaemia 14
shock 52–6
anaphylactic 53–4, 55
cardiogenic 53, 54
cervical 18, 21
common features 53
and confusion 65
in ectopic pregnancy 19
hyperdynamic 52
hypodynamic 52
hypovolaemic 52, 54
neurogenic 54
and pancreatitis 54
septic 13, 52, 54, 55–6, 55
vasodilatory 54
shortness of breath see breathlessness
sinusitis 32
spinal stenosis 61
staghorn calculi 78
Staphylococcus aureus 38
in septic arthritis 34
and toxic shock syndrome 54
status epilepticus 3
straight leg raise test 61, 61
Group A 54
S. pneumoniae 38
Fletcher_Index.indd 84
stroke 2
and confusion 65
and dizziness 42–3
minor 22
risk factors 25
risk stratification 25
ROSIER scale 22, 23
see also transient ischaemic attack
subarachnoid haemorrhage 2, 30, 30, 32,
33, 65
subdural haematoma 22–3, 23, 65
syncope 72, 74–5
classification 73
ECG in 74, 75
and final diagnosis 74
hospitalisation following 75
systemic inflammatory response
syndrome 52, 54
tachyarrhythmias 53, 57–8
temporal arteritis 32
terminal ileitis 76–7
thiamine deficiency 50
thrombophlebitis 7
thyrotoxicosis 58, 59
TIA 22, 25, 42–3, 74
tick typhus 14
tilt table testing 75
tinnitus 42
TLOC 72–5
Todd’s paresis 23, 74
tonsillitis 14, 15
toxic shock syndrome 54
tranexamic acid 20
transient ischaemic attack 22, 25, 42–3, 74
transient loss of consciousness 72–5
Trichomonas 20
tricyclic antidepressants
and level of consciousness 1
signs of overdose 2, 2
troponin 11
trypanosomiasis 14
tuberculosis 14, 16
typhoid 14, 16–17, 16
ulcerative colitis 7, 77, 77
ulnar nerve, neuropathy 24
unconsciousness 1–4
transient 72–5
Unterberger test 46, 46
uraemia 3, 65
Urate 34
ureteric calculi 78
urinary incontinence
in cauda equina syndrome 61
in post-ictal state 3, 74
urinary tract infection 78
delirium due to 64, 65, 66–7
with prostatitis 62
vaginal bleeding 18–21
vasovagal syncope 72
ventricular tachycardia 58
vertebral artery dissection 3
vertebral fracture 61
vertigo 41, 41
benign paroxysmal positional 43
in labyrinthitis 43
vestibular neuronitis 42, 43, 47
vestibular schwannoma 43
viral haemorrhagic fever 14
Virchow’s triad 6–7
vitamin B1 deficiency 50
in acute unilateral peripheral
vestibulopathy 42, 42
and alcohol ingestion 50, 50
in appendicitis 76
and brain tumour 23, 65
in diabetic ketoacidosis 64, 69
and gallstones 26
and head injury 49
in meningitis 2, 65
in migraine 31
in myocardial infarction 27
in pancreatitis 27
in pelvic inflammatory disease 77
in peptic ulcer disease 26, 28
weakness, transient 22–5
Weber’s tuning fork test 43, 44
Wells score 7, 38
Wernicke’s encephalopathy 50, 51
West Nile virus 14
wheeze 38, 39, 54, 69, 70
Widal test 16
wrist drop 24
5/13/2009 10:38:04 AM
Fletcher_Index.indd 85
5/13/2009 10:38:04 AM
Fletcher_Index.indd 86
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Fletcher_Index.indd 87
5/13/2009 10:38:04 AM
Fletcher_Index.indd 88
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