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Patterns of care and outcomes after computed tomography scans for headache


Background — Concerns exist about potential overuse of computed tomography (CT) scans for headache in ambulatory care.

Methods — We sought to examine health services use, brain tumor diagnosis, and death during the year after CT scanning for headache by linking records of an audit of 3930 outpatient CT brain scans performed in 2005 in Ontario, Canada, to administrative databases.
Results — Of 623 patients receiving CT scans for a sole indication of headache, few (2.1%) scans contained findings potentially causing their headache. For most patients, the index CT scan was the only one received over an 11-year period. However, 28.4% of patients received 1 or more CT brain scans during the preceding decade and 6.7% received 1 or more CT brain scans during the subsequent year. Of the 473 patients (75.9%) whose index scan was ordered by a primary care physician, most (80.3%) did not see a specialist during follow-up. One patient with an indeterminate finding on the index scan was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor (0.2%), and 6 patients (1.0%) died during follow-up. Among the 4 deaths in which the cause could be determined, none were due to central nervous system causes.

Conclusion — Because of the potential risk of cancer from exposure to ionizing radiation, efforts should be made to avoid CT scanning for headache when the likelihood of serious illness is low. Evidence-based decision rules that identify which patients with headache do not require neuroimaging may decrease the use of CT scans in situations of little benefit.



You JJ, Gladstone J, Symons S, Rotstein D, Laupacis A, Bell CM. Am J Med. 2011; 124(1):58-63.e1. Epub 2010 Oct 19.

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Contributing ICES Scientists