It is widely assumed that subdural and retinal haemorrhage in infants can only result from traumatic rupture of vulnerable blood vessels. An alternative aetiology, that of vascular rupture resulting from excessive intraluminal pressure, is presented in three disease conditions.
(1) Perlman et al., studying premature neonates requiring mechanical ventilation for respiratory distress syndrome, observed “cough-like” fluctuations in oesophageal pressure greater than 18 cms H2O, whose timing matched fluctuations in anterior cerebral artery flow. When 14 out of 24 neonates were paralysed (to prevent abdominal muscle activity) intraventricular haemorrhage developed in all 10 controls but in only one of the paralysed group during paralysis.
(2) New analysis of pressure data extracted from a previous study of prolonged expiratory apnoea showed alveolar collapse induced 100 mmHg intrathoracic cough pressure surges. Superior vena cava pressures up to 50 mmHg were implied, and radial artery systolic pressures over 180 mmHg recorded.
(3) Bordetella pertussis bacteria attach to cilia in the airways, but do not invade the underlying tissue. The irritation causes the powerful coughing paroxysms of whooping cough. Brain haemorrhages and retinal detachment have been observed to result from the high intravascular pressures produced.
The data suggest that any source of intense airway irritation not easily removed (laryngeal infection, inhalation of regurgitated feed, fluff, smoke etc.) could induce similar bleeding, a paroxysmal cough injury (PCI). Additional objective evidence of inflicted trauma is necessary to distinguish between ‘shaken baby syndrome’ and PCI.