OXY’s LOG – ‘Anisocoria and Stardust…’

Take caution if you ever get tasked to a pre-hospital trauma at David Bowie’s house. His reduced level of consciousness and blown pupil might just be due to a copious amount of mind-bending drugs and the accident as a school-boy which left him with a unilateral pupillary defect.1  In my mind he still gets a tube and the paramedic can do it, but he only gets “one shot“?!?2

Anisocoria is characterised by unequal pupil sizes, but not necessarily as a consequence of mydriasis; a dilated pupil. There are also many pre-hospital causes of a unilateral miosis; a constricted pupil.3

A “blown” pupil is the colloquial term used by medics to refer to a fixed unilateral mydriasis.4

Case: Our HEMS team was called to a rural trauma involving two motocross riders. The more seriously injured victim had obvious right-sided facial and thoracic injuries, had a blown right pupil and a GCS 3 (with no external signs of head trauma). He received an RSI and bilateral thoracostomies. His pupillary signs did not improve with a bolus of hypertonic saline bolus and hyperventilation in transit.

The head CT performed at the trauma centre revealed no gross intracranial pathology requiring neurosurgical intervention, but did show a right-sided retrobulbar haematoma, which was thought to account for his unilateral fixed dilated pupil.

Challenge: To understand the pathophysiology of pupillary signs and when a “blown” pupil might not be a consequence of uncal herniation.

Pathophysiology: Pupillary size is governed by the balance of actions of two opposing muscle groups of the iris: the dilator and sphincter pupillae controlled by the autonomic nervous system.

Constriction of the size of the pupil is mediated via parasympathetic (cholinergic) nerve fibers that travel superficially with the third cranial nerve. The pupil will respond to circulating catecholamines but dilation is controlled by sympathetic fibres originating from the superior cervical ganglia.5,6

Each eye’s sensory pathway is linked with its counterpart by partial crossover of fibers in the Edinger-Westphal nuclei which accounts for the consensual response to light.7

Learning points: Obvious direct trauma and fake eyeballs aside, below is Fig 1. summarising the pre-hospital causes of anisocoria.

Fig 1. Summary of the pathophysiology of anisocoria. 

Summary: A fixed dilated pupil in the pre-hospital setting is presumed to be a sign of uncal herniation until proven otherwise and should be treated accordingly. However it is useful to understand the anatomy and physiology and the other possible causes of unequal pupils. 


1.  http://www.davidbowie.com/

2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HeJziedSijM

3. “Anisocoria.” Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, 27th ed. (2000).

4. “Traumatic Brain Injury”. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Retrieved 27 March 2012.

5. Biousse, V., Newman, N.J., 2009. Neuro-Ophthalmology Illustrated, Thieme Verlag, Germany.

6. Kardon, R. 2005. Anatomy and physiology of the autonomic nervous system. In: Walsh and Hoyt Clinical Neuro-ophthalmology, 6th ed, Miller, NR, Newman, NJ, Biousse, V, Kerrison, JB (Eds), Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore. p.649.


8.  http://eyevideos.blogspot.com.au/

Claude os, aperi oculos!

This entry was posted in Cases, Interhospital, Neurological and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to OXY’s LOG – ‘Anisocoria and Stardust…’

  1. Bubba says:

    We only need one shot Doctor…..Check my stats Baby

    • jmlboss says:

      Thanks for your comment Bubba. It means a lot that you guys are looking at these blogs too.

      It was just a shame, the musician in question with anisocoria wasn’t ‘The Boss’ (Bruce Springsteen) then I could have used his song ‘Blinded By The Light‘ for the post….

  2. Pingback: Anisocoria causes | Litofoto

  3. Oliver says:

    Great information thanks.

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