Traumatic subarachnoid hemorrhage

Traumatic subarachnoid hemorrhage (tSAH) is a common injury, and trauma is the most common cause of subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH) .


Traumatic subarachnoid hemorrhage occurs in ~35% (range 11-60%) of traumatic brain injuries .


Traumatic subarachnoid hemorrhage is more commonly seen in the cerebral sulci than in the Sylvian fissure and basal CSF cisterns . When in the basal cisterns, it has an affinity for the quadrigeminal cistern and ambient cistern . tSAH is also commonly seen adjacent to skull fractures and cerebral contusions .

The exact mechanism of tSAH remains uncertain although it is clear that a number of etiologies exist and these will determine, at least to a degree, the distribution of blood. Causes of tSAH include :

  • direct extravasation of blood from an adjacent cerebral contusion
  • arterial dissection
  • direct damage to small veins or arteries
  • sudden increase in intravascular pressures leading to rupture

Radiographic features


CT of the brain is almost always the first scan obtained in the setting of trauma, often as part of a CT panscan.

Although the sensitivity of CT to the presence of subarachnoid blood is strongly influenced by both the amount of blood and the time since the hemorrhage, in the setting of trauma scans are almost always obtained early, often mere minutes or hours from head injury, making even small amounts of blood readily visible.

The distribution and amount of blood varies greatly depending on the underlying mechanism (see above) and from patient to patient.

Often a small amount of blood is seen filling a few sulci, sometimes with an adjacent cerebral contusion. Small amounts of blood can also sometimes be appreciated pooling in the interpeduncular fossa, appearing as a small hyperdense triangle, or within the occipital horns of the lateral ventricles.

Occasionally, and worrying for an underlying arterial dissection or an aneurysmal hemorrhage that preceded trauma, larger amounts of blood may be seen around the circle of Wilis and within the posterior fossa.

Treatment and prognosis

Traumatic subarachnoid hemorrhage has a better prognosis than aneurysmal SAH .


Differential diagnosis

It can be difficult to delineate from tSAH, particularly as in many instances the cause of head trauma may have been spontaneous subarachnoid (e.g. while driving).

The distribution of blood, particularly if closely related to cerebral contusions can suggest traumatic etiology, whereas extensive blood around the circle of Willis should prompt arterial imaging to exclude an aneurysm.

Distinguishing between aneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage and traumatic non-aneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage is not always possible, and the trauma may have in reality been precipitated by a spontaneous aneurysmal hemorrhage (e.g. while driving).

That having been said, there are helpful features in suggesting that subarachnoid hemorrhage is the result of trauma, rather than the reason for trauma. These features include:

  • documented (witnessed) trauma not being preceded by a headache or loss of consciousness or seizure
  • subarachnoid blood being relatively minor and associated with cerebral contusions
  • subarachnoid blood located over the convexity of the brain rather than around the circle of Willis or posterior fossa
  • location of subarachnoid blood deep to scalp hematoma or in a contrecoup distribution