Context: Abusive head trauma (AHT) is a dangerous form of child abuse that can be difficult to diagnose in young children.
Objectives: To determine how frequently AHT was previously missed by physicians in a group of abused children with head injuries and to determine factors associated with the unrecognized diagnosis.
Design: Retrospective chart review of cases of head trauma presenting between January 1, 1990, and December 31, 1995.
Setting: Academic children's hospital.
Patients: One hundred seventy-three children younger than 3 years with head injuries caused by abuse.
Main outcome measures: Characteristics of head-injured children in whom diagnosis of AHT was unrecognized and the consequences of the missed diagnoses.
Results: Fifty-four (31.2%) of 173 abused children with head injuries had been seen by physicians after AHT and the diagnosis was not recognized. The mean time to correct diagnosis among these children was 7 days (range, 0-189 days). Abusive head trauma was more likely to be unrecognized in very young white children from intact families and in children without respiratory compromise or seizures. In 7 of the children with unrecognized AHT, misinterpretation of radiological studies contributed to the delay in diagnosis. Fifteen children (27.8%) were reinjured after the missed diagnosis. Twenty-two (40.7%) experienced medical complications related to the missed diagnosis. Four of 5 deaths in the group with unrecognized AHT might have been prevented by earlier recognition of abuse.
Conclusion: Although diagnosing head trauma can be difficult in the absence of a history, it is important to consider inflicted head trauma in infants and young children presenting with nonspecific clinical signs.