Delayed Intracranial Hemorrhage In Patients On Anticoagulants

A sizable portion of our population is taking one type of anticoagulant or another. Heck, even golf star Arnold Palmer and comedian Kevin Nealon are on Xarelto! Any trauma professional, and anyone who reads the package insert, knows that there is an increased risk of bleeding if they are injured while taking these drugs, whether it be warfarin or the new, novel anticoagulants.

But does the risk stop soon after injury? That is the presumption at many hospitals that initially treat these patients. They are seen in the ED, examined, scanned, and sent home if nothing is found. Is this a safe practice?

I have personally seen a patient who had an initially clean CT present within 12 hours after ED discharge with a catastrophic bleed and die. Yes, this is anecdotal, but I have talked to other trauma professionals with similar experiences. If this were just a minor complication, no big deal. But they died. Big problem for everyone involved.

So what does the literature say? Unfortunately, it consists of a collection of relatively small studies. Here are the collected factoids that I can glean from them:

  • Most are retrospective, observational studies 
  • Most are from a single hospital, which may miss readmissions to other facilities in the area
  • The delayed bleeding rate is about 0.5% to 1%
  • Some papers recommended discharging patients with a normal head CT and giving them instructions to return if new symptoms develop (this is what happened with my patient; what if they live alone or in a care center where these may not be recognized?!)
  • A few papers did identify patients needing neurosurgical intervention or who died
  • Immediate bleeds were more common with antiplatelet agents, delayed bleeds were more common with warfarin
  • I could find nothing that looked at this problem in patients taking novel anticoagulants like Pradaxa or Xarelto

Bottom line: The literature provides little guidance at this point. A good multi-institutional trial is needed to generate the numbers to tell us what to do. While we get around to this, I recommend that a selective brief observation (12 hrs) protocol be adopted. This protocol recognizes that subclinical bleeding may be present on initial presentation, and that a little more time is needed for it to declare itself.

Here is a link to our protocol. If the initial head CT is negative and the INR is less than 2.5, we will only discharge the patient if all of these criteria are true:

  • Age < 65
  • No skull fx
  • No new focal neurologic deficits
  • No soft tissue injury visible on CT (hematoma, laceration)
  • GCS = 15
  • No persistent vomiting
  • Brief TBI screen passed (Short Blessed Test, link here)

Most do not pass all of these, usually failing the age criterion. They are admitted for observation and neurologic monitoring for 12 hours, at which time the head CT is repeated. If it is still normal, then they can go home.

And although this protocol was designed with warfarin in mind, we apply it to patients taking novel anticoagulants like Pradaxa and Xarelto as well. We’ve had no epic fails yet, but I keep my fingers crossed!

Related posts:


  • Management of minor head injury in patients receiving oral anticoagulant therapy: a prospective study of a 24-hour observation protocol. Ann Emerg Med 59(6):451-455, 2012.
  • Immediate and delayed traumatic intracranial hemorrhage in patients with head trauma and preinjury warfarin or clopidogrel use. Ann Emerg Med 59(6):460-468, 2012.
  • Delayed intracranial hemorrhage after blunt trauma: are patients on preinjury anticoagulants and prescription antiplatelet agents at risk? J Trauma 71(6):1600-1604, 2011.
  • Low risk of late intracranial complications in mild traumatic brain injury patients using oral anticoagulation after an initial normal brain computed tomography scan: education instead of hospitalization. Eur J Neurol 21(7):1021-1025, 2014.
  • Can anticoagulated patients be discharged home safely from the emergency department after minor head injury? J Emerg Med 46(3):410-417, 2014.
  • Patients with blunt head trauma on anticoagulation and antiplatelet medications: can they be safely discharged after a normal initial cranial computed tomography scan? Am Surg 80(6):610-613, 2014.
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