Headache and Vomiting – OSCE Case

If you'd like to support us, check out our awesome products:


A 54-year-old woman attends the emergency department with a headache and vomiting. Work through the case to reach a diagnosis.

UK Medical Licensing Assessment (UKMLA)

This clinical case maps to the following UKMLA presentations:

You might also be interested in our premium collection of 1,300+ ready-made OSCE Stations, including a range ofย history taking, clinical examination and data interpretation stationsย โœจ


Presenting complaint

“I’ve got the most awful headache and feel really sick”

History of presenting complaint

Where is the pain?

โ€œAt the back of my headโ€

When did it start and what were you doing when it started? Have you hit your head at all recently?

โ€œIt came on suddenly around 2 hours ago while I was just sat at my desk. It felt like someone had hit me round the back of the head, but I havenโ€™t hit my head at allโ€

Can you describe the pain?

โ€œAwful, intense acheโ€

Does the pain go anywhere else?

โ€œI can feel it going down into my neckโ€

Have you noticed any weakness?


Have you had any changes to sensation in your body? Or any new, abnormal sensations?


Have you had any loss of vision?


Did you lose consciousness at all?


Have you been sick with the headache?

โ€Iโ€™ve been sick 3 times since it started.”

Do bright lights make the pain worse?

“Yes, the bright lights in here are bothering meโ€

Do you have any neck pain?

“Yes, it feels really sore”

Have you had a fever? Or felt chills?

How long did it take to reach maximum intensity?

“It got as bad as it is now within around 30 seconds.”

Have you had similar headaches previously?

“Iโ€™ve never had anything like this before in my lifeโ€

Have you had any analgesia?ย 

โ€œIโ€™ve had paracetamol but that hasnโ€™t helped.”

Does the headache change with position?

“Nothing really makes any difference to itโ€

What would you score the pain out of 10?

โ€œDefinitely a 10/10โ€

Note that this history is focused on an acute headache. In chronic or recurrent headaches, other factors are important to consider, such as frequency and triggers for the headaches.

Headache red flags

For more information on red flags, see the Geeky Medics guide to headache history taking.

Red flag Status
Symptoms of raised intracranial pressure Present
Focal neurological symptoms such as limb weakness or sensory change, visual loss, or speech deficit Absent
A sudden-onset severe headache Present
History of head trauma Absent
Symptoms of meningeal irritation Present
Fever and/or petechial rash Absent
Acute severe eye pain or monocular visual loss/redness Absent
Temporal artery tenderness Absent

Clinical examination

Examination findings

  • Cranial nerve examination normal
  • Upper and lower limb neurological examinations normal
  • GCS 15/15 (E4V5M6)
  • Fundoscopy normal
  • Abdominal examination normal

Assess for signs of meningism:

  • Nuchal rigidity (neck stiffness and restricted movement, not just painful movement):ย present
  • Kernigโ€™s sign (resisted extension of the knee when knee and thigh held at 90 degrees):ย absent
  • Brudzinskiโ€™s sign (flexion of the neck causing flexion of the hips whilst laying supine):ย present


A plain CT head is the most important test to arrange in the emergency department.

If the initial CT is normal and doesnโ€™t show any contraindications, a lumbar puncture should be considered to obtain CSF for microscopy, culture, and sensitivity (MC+S), protein, glucose, and xanthochromia testing.


Some of the most likely possible diagnoses are listed below using the VINDICATE model:

CT head

Here is an image from the CT head of this patient:

CT head
Figure 1. CT head.1

Subarachnoid haemorrhage (SAH) is the most likely diagnosis in this patient presenting with a thunderclap headache and vomiting, and hyperdense material in the subarachnoid spaces in keeping with acute blood is seen on the CT head.

While trauma is the most common cause of subarachnoid haemorrhage (SAH), aneurysm rupture is the most common cause of atraumatic SAH. Less common causes include vasculitis and bleeding from arteriovenous malformations.


Nimodipine is a calcium channel blocker that, unlike amlodipine, has shown benefit in reducing the risk of vasospasm in subarachnoid haemorrhage. A standard regime is 60mg every 4 hours for 21 days.

Aspirin is sometimes used in patients following endovascular treatment of aneurysms but should not be given to patients with bleeding before this.

Depending on the type, location and size of the aneurysm, options include interventional neuroradiological procedures such as coiling and surgical procedures such as clipping of the aneurysm.

Other surgical procedures may be required, such as inserting an external ventricular drain (EVD) to manage hydrocephalus.



Dr Jess Speller


  1. Radiopaedia.org, Cuete, D. Subarachnoid haemorrhage. Case study image. Published May 2013. Available from: [LINK]
  2. BMJ. Effect of oral nimodipine on cerebral infarction and outcome after subarachnoid haemorrhage: British aneurysm nimodipine trial. 1989 Mar 11; 298(6674): 636โ€“642.
  3. Kopitnik, T.; Samson, D.ย Management of subarachnoid emergency.ย Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry. 1993. 56: 947-959. Available from: [LINK]
  4. British Association for the Study of Headache.ย BASH Guidelines 2019. Available from: [LINK]


Print Friendly, PDF & Email