Spontaneous subarachnoid haemorrhage (SAH) in children is uncommon, but is sometimes seen after rupture of aneurysms, and in different disorders. Traumatic SAH is common after serious accidental head injury, but is also reported after child abuse with vigorous shaking. To avoid unnecessary accusations of innocent care givers, it is important not to misinterpret the findings as abusive head trauma in small children with SAH.
In the presented case, a nearly two-year-old girl was brought to the hospital after a fall witnessed by her father. The girl was unconscious, with elevated intracranial pressure, SAH and bilateral retinal haemorrhage (RH). She was pronounced dead after 9 h. Premortem angiography revealed a dissection of the right vertebral artery, and postmortem examination revealed a traumatic lesion deep in the neck, at the base of the skull. Cerebral edema, in combination with SAH and RH, is highly suggestive of abusive head trauma. However, no external lesions, no skeletal lesions, especially no long bone metaphyseal lesions, or subdural haematomas occurring at the same time as SAH, were found. There was no report of previous child abuse in the family. Based on the radiological and postmortem findings, we believe that an accidental fall caused a blunt force trauma with a subsequent dissection of the right vertebral artery.
To our knowledge, accidental tear of one of the vertebral arteries, leading to SAH in a toddler, has previously not been described. Child abuse is an important exclusion diagnosis with serious legal implications.