Seizure: Lethal Dissection

Lethal Dissection Seizure

Case Presentation

A 49-year old female without any co-morbidities presented to the emergency department (ED) with seizures. On arrival, she was in a postictal state.

She had recently visited a local hospital with complaints of severe dysmenorrhea and low back pain. The attenders informed us that she was very sleepy and weak at that time, was treated for pain and given tranexamic acid, and sent home. The next day, she had one episode of Generalized Tonic-Clonic Seizure, and she arrived in our ED in a postictal phase. She vomited twice in the ED.

Her vitals were as follows: 

  • Blood pressure (BP): 160/100 mmHg.
  • Heart rate (HR): 22/min
  • Peripheral capillary oxygen saturation (SPO2): 98% on room air
  • General Random Blood Sugar (GRBS): 233 mg/dl
  • Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS): E2V5M6

Her examination was as follows:

  • The patient was drowsy but arousable. 
  • Pupils bilateral reacting to light. No anisocoria.
  • CNS examination could not be completed as the patient was drowsy.
  • A normal pattern of breathing. The respiratory examination was normal.
  • The abdomen was soft, symmetric, and non-tender without distention.

Point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS) showed a flap in the abdominal aorta. (See Figure 1 and 2 for transverse and longitudinal views of the aorta, respectively) Upon this finding, cardiac surgery and neurology consultations were sought.

Transverse section of the abdominal aorta showing a flap.

Image shows transverse section of the abdominal aorta showing a flap.

Abdominal aorta showing a flap

Image shows abdominal aorta showing a flap.

The laboratory results were as follows:

  • D-dimer: 1192 ng/ml
  • Haemoglobin (Hb): 10 g/dl
  • The international normalized ratio (INR): 1.25
  • Platelets: 260000 per mcL
  • Total leucocyte count (TLC): 22000 cells/mm3
  • Creatinine :1.6 mg/dl.

Meanwhile, the patient was suffering multiple seizure-like episodes, characterized by staring, deviation of the mouth, and irregular limb movements, but these episodes lasted for few minutes and ended without the postictal phase. The patient was drowsy but obeyed commands and did not have any recollection of those few minutes.

Head computed tomography (CT) showed no infarct or bleeding. It was normal.

CT angiogram and aortogram revealed that the patient had Stanford Type A aortic dissection with the flap extending to the entire left subclavian artery, with severely occluding filling defects and thrombosis of the false lumen into bilateral common carotid arteries (See Figure 3, 4 and 5). On the other end, the dissection extended to the common iliac arteries (See Figure 6).

CT Aortogram showing bilateral common carotid artery filling defects

Image shows CT Aortogram showing bilateral common carotid artery filling defects

And on the other loose of the string the dissection was extending till the common iliac arteries.
Ascending and descending aortic dissection

Image shows ascending and descending aortic dissection

Dissection of the common iliac artery before bifurcation

Image shows dissection of the common iliac artery before bifurcation.



Initially, the patient was treated symptomatically by anti-epileptics and analgesics. After the cardio-thoracic and vascular surgeon consultations, we decided to airlift the patient to a higher centre as our hospital was tertiary care and there were no grafts for the urgent repair of the extensive aortic dissection. We intubated the patient for secure transportation. However, we learned that the patient expired in the higher centre before reaching the operating room.


Before I shed light on the important part of this discussion, I know that the outcome of this case was unfortunately grave. However, I chose this case because of it.

In this case, the patient had low back pain in her previous hospital visit. However, she was sent home with symptomatic management, implying that it could have been addressed more carefully. She visited our ED one day later, and POCUS let us diagnose the dissection in 15 minutes, which was confirmed by a CT aortogram within 40 minutes. After consultations and finding the available facility, we airlifted the patient to a higher centre for urgent repair, but the patient could not make it to the operating room.     

We all know acute aortic dissection is the most common life-threatening disorder affecting the aorta. Over the first several hours, the mortality rate increase up to 1% per hour; therefore, early intervention is critical (1). In our case, the involvement of bilateral carotid arteries caused seizure-like episodes and altered mental status. Also, studies show that patients with similarly located dissections may experience neck pain, transient ischemic attacks (TIA), cerebral ischemia, transient monocular blindness and subarachnoid haemorrhage (SAH) but not seizure(2). In our case, the global hypo-perfusion caused recurrent TIAs, which resembled seizure-like clinical episodes. That’s why emergency physicians should be vigilant about the underlying causes of seizure-like activities, even if altered mental status similar to postictal state is present, especially if the patient does not have a history of seizures and the complaints are unclear. Keep the aortic dissection in mind as a differential. Also, I cannot stress the use of POCUS in the ED enough. It is a game-changer, and in our case, it detected a lethal disease successfully.

Learning Points

  1. Never ignore back pain that does not subside after adequate pain management.
  2. POCUS is always a game-changer. It saves a lot of time and lives, as in my case.
  3. Seizures or not, you must keep a high suspicion for lethal vascular diseases. Remember the basics: If unclear, go back to history.
  4. Once you confirm an aortic dissection, never delay treatment because time = life.
  5. Never ever send a patient back home unless you are completely sure about the cause of the presenting symptom. Over investigating is ok when compared to under investigating, when it might cost a life.

References and Further Reading

  1. Braverman AC. Acute aortic dissection: clinician update. Circulation. 2010;122(2):184-188. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.110.958975
  2. Debette S, Grond-Ginsbach C, Bodenant M, et al. Differential features of carotid and vertebral artery dissections: the CADISP study. Neurology. 2011;77(12):1174-1181. doi:10.1212/WNL.0b013e31822f03fc
Cite this article as: Naveen Paila, India, "Seizure: Lethal Dissection," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, November 15, 2021,, date accessed: December 11, 2023

Question Of The Day #1

question of the day

Which of the following is the most appropriate next step in management for this patient‘s condition?

The patient in this scenario has an aortic dissection until proven otherwise. Administering anticoagulation (Choice A: Unfractionated Heparin Drip) would be the correct treatment for a pulmonary embolism. Although the patient has mild tachycardia and tachypnea on the exam, characteristics of the history and exam point closer to a diagnosis of aortic dissection. Features of the history that support a diagnosis of aortic dissection include pain described as “tearing”, “ripping”, or sharp pain radiating to the back. Other characteristics include unequal blood pressures in the extremities or neurological symptoms. Aortic dissections that migrate proximally may cause cardiac tamponade or a STEMI if they involve the coronary arteries. Choice C (Aspirin) would be the treatment for Acute Coronary Syndrome. Choice D (Call a Cardiology consultation) would not be appropriate for a patient with aortic dissection. A cardiothoracic surgical consultation would be appropriate in a patient with an aortic dissection involving the ascending aorta (Type A aortic dissection). Aortic dissections distal to the left subclavian artery that involve the descending aorta (Type B aortic dissection) are typically managed medically with blood pressure control. Choice B (IV Labetalol) is the correct answer as Aortic Dissections require aggressive blood pressure control with a goal of less than 120/80 mmHg. Beta-blockers, like Labetalol, are considered first-line therapy as they provide both alpha and beta-adrenergic receptor blockade. This allows the reduction of blood pressure without a reflex tachycardia response. Esmolol is an alternative therapy. Beta-blockers decrease vessel shearing forces that could worsen intimal vessel tearing. If beta-blockers alone cannot control blood pressure sufficiently, other medications can be included in the treatment regimen, like nicardipine, nitroglycerin, nitroprusside.


Johnson GA, Prince LA. “Chapter 59: Aortic Dissection and Related Aortic Syndromes”. In: Tintinalli JE, Ma O, Yealy DM, Meckler GD, Stapczynski J, Cline DM, Thomas SH. eds. Tintinalli’s Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide, 9th ed. McGraw-Hill.

Cite this article as: Joseph Ciano, USA, "Question Of The Day #1," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, June 24, 2020,, date accessed: December 11, 2023

Stanford A or B?

In case you didn’t encounter a patient with sudden onset chest pain today!

68.2 - AD CT2

iEM Education Project Team uploads many clinical picture and videos to the Flickr and YouTube. These images are free to use in education. You can also support this global EM education initiative by providing your resources. Sharing is caring!

Selected Cardiovascular Emergencies

Cardiovascular Emergencies selected from SAEM and IFEM undergraduate curriculum recommendations are uploaded into the website. You can read, listen or download all these chapters freely. More specific disease entities are on the way.

Acute Heart Failure (AHF)

by Walid Hammad – USA Case Presentation An ambulance crew rushes into your emergency department (ED) with a 56-year-old man. He is severely short of

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Aortic Dissection

by Shanaz Sajeed Introduction Aortic dissection carries high morbidity and mortality. Although patients generally present with acute symptoms and classic signs, a subset of patients

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Hypertensive Emergencies

by Sadiye Yolcu Introduction Systemic hypertension is a common medical problem. It affects over 1 million people worldwide. ER clinicians commonly encounter this problem. Rapid

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Pulmonary Embolism

by Elif Dilek Cakal Case Presentation A 45-year-old female with no prior medical history presented to the emergency department (ED) with three days of constant shortness

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Do you need more?

X-ray findings of AD

In case you didn’t encounter a patient with sharp inter scapular pain today!

A 67-year-old male patient presented with sharp interscapular pain. BP: 189/107 mmHg, HR: 118 bpm, RR: 26/min, T: 37, SpO2: 93% in room air. He has a history of hypertension and diabetes mellitus. The chest x-ray is shown below.

Let’s remember findings of aortic dissection in the chest x-ray.

  1. Depression of the left mainstem bronchus
  2. Displaced intimal calcification
  3. Indistinct or irregular aortic contour
  4. Left apical pleural cap
  5. Opacification of the “AP window” (i.e., clear space between the aorta and the pulmonary artery)
  6. Pleural effusion (left > right)
  7. Tracheal or esophageal deviation
  8. Widened aortic knob or mediastinum (present in only 63% and 56% of patients with type A and type B dissections, respectively)
71.1 - AD1

iEM Education Project Team uploads many clinical picture and videos to the Flickr and YouTube. These images are free to use in education. You can also support this global EM education initiative by providing your resources. Sharing is caring!