Solve the Medical Riddle: She Has Had a Constant Headache for Two Weeks and Her Pupils Are Not the Same Size, Fourth Week

Editor’s note: Welcome to our ThirdAge feature that gives you a chance to play medical sleuth as we share the details of what happened when a patient presented with a problem that stumped the physician at first.

The first week of this riddle, the patient reported her symptoms to her PCP. The doctor proceeded with the examination using the classic S-O-A-P notes as follows:

S=Symptoms or Chief Complaint

O=Objective Findings

A=Assessment or Analysis

P=Treatment Plan or Recommendations

The doctor recognized a potential medical emergency and transferred Chloe to the Emergency Department immediately. The second week, we learned what happened when Chloe first arrived in the Emergency Department. Last week, we let you know what some people suggested as possible diagnoses. This week, the doctor will reveal the actual diagnosis. Then we’ll begin a new riddle for the following month!  



The Doctor Reveals the Diagnosis



All of the guesses as to the diagnosis were very good, but no one managed to nail it.(ha, fun “trick”) Chloe turned out to have what is called an acute subdural hematoma. It’s a pooling blood between the dura (the covering of the brain) and the surface of the brain. Chloe’s subdural hematoma was “acute” because it was linked to the minor bump to her head that happened three weeks before she went to the doctor for her headaches. In contract, chronic subdural hematoma has no history of brain trauma in up to half of the patients and the time frame could be much longer than 21 days.

What’s interesting is that people, especially older people, can get a subdural hematoma even without any direct trauma to the head. Even a fall that doesn’t involve the head can bring on a subdural hematoma. It is the “shaking” of the aging brain, which is typically atrophying or shrinking in the skull, that tugs on the veins. They can then tear and slowly bleed. This mechanism of brain bleeding without direct trauma is reminiscent of “shaken baby syndrome”  or what many experts now refer to as abusive head trauma. Both conditions, one in older people and one in young infants, result in bleeding but in adults venous bleeding is on the surface of the brain and in infants, capillary bleeding occurs within the brain.

Tip-offs as to Chloe’s diagnosis were the subtle changes on her neurological exam on the side opposite to the bleed along with the pupil change on the same side as the bleed. That is because the swelling affects the third cranial nerve controlling the pupil on right side, but the right side of brain controls the nerves to the left side of the body.



Once the diagnosis was made, the neurosurgeon in the Emergency Department performed surgical decompression. Surgery is not always needed for chronic subdural hematoma, which may resorb spontaneously, but a “burr hole craniostomy” is usually done for acute subdural hematoma with neurological findings such as pupil changes and brain swelling. The patient then quickly has a resolution of headaches and pupil size returns to normal.

Here is Chloe’s take on all that she went through:

“My doctor praised me for trusting my instincts and getting checked out even though my headaches weren’t all that bad. I’m really glad I did! He said time was of the essence as my condition could have gotten worse. I’m still amazed that this was an emergency and I’m so grateful for the immediate care I received. I recovered well from the surgery and I feel great now. For a few weeks, I did feel extra nervous about the possibility of falling or hitting my head, but I gradually got me confidence back. My daughter helped me with that. I had her name in my wallet as my emergency contact, and she rushed over to the hospital. She got there before the surgery and totally calmed me down. Then she came and stayed with me for a few days while I was recovering. I’ve live alone since my divorce several years ago so having her around was a real blessing. I guess the best part about what happened is that I have a renewed feeling of joy in being alive. Without even realizing it, I was feeling sorry for myself after the divorce. Hey, I’m still here and that’s what matters! Maybe I’ll meet someone new. You never know. And if not, I’ll still count my blessings every day. Life is too short to be feeling sorry for myself! I know that for sure now.”

Come back to next Thursday when we’ll introduce a new medical riddle!

Marie Savard, M.D., a former Medical Contributor for ABC News and a frequent keynote speaker around the world, is one of the most trusted voices on women’s health, wellness, and patient empowerment. She is the author of four books, including one that made the Wall Street Journal list of the best health books of 2009: “Ask Dr. Marie: What Women Need to Know about Hormones, Libido, and the Medical Problems No One Talks About.” Dr. Marie earned a B.S. in Nursing and an M.D. degree at the University of Pennsylvania. She has served as Director of the Center for Women’s Health at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, technical advisor to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, advisor to the American Board of Internal Medicine Subcommittee on Clinical Competency in Women’s Health, health columnist for Woman’s Day magazine, and senior medical consultant to Lifetime Television’s Strong Medicine. Please visit

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