Objective: Computed tomographic (CT) scanning can reveal the pattern and severity of structural brain damage after head injury. With the proliferation of CT scanners in general hospitals, and with improvements in patient transport, the interval from injury to the first CT scan is decreasing. The potential result is an "admission" scan missing an evolving and potentially operable lesion. Furthermore, the literature is confusing regarding the timing and coding of CT findings. We sought to establish the frequency of deterioration in CT appearance from an admission scan to subsequent scans and the prognostic significance of such deterioration.
Methods: In a survey organized by the European Brain Injury Consortium, data on initial severity, management, and subsequent outcome were gathered prospectively for 1005 patients with moderate or severe head injury admitted to one of 67 European neurosurgical units during a 3-month period in 1995. The findings of the initial and the final ("worst") CT scan were classified according to the Traumatic Coma Data Bank system and were related to outcome as assessed using the Glasgow Outcome Scale 6 months after injury.
Results: Data on an initial and a final CT scan were available for 897 patients; of these, 724 patients were assessed using the Glasgow Outcome Scale at 6 months. The initial CT findings were classified as a diffuse injury for 53% of the cohort, with 16% of these diffuse injuries demonstrating deterioration on a subsequent scan. In 56 (74%) of 76 deteriorations, the change was from a diffuse injury to a mass lesion. When the initial CT scan demonstrated a diffuse injury without swelling or shift, evolution to a mass lesion was associated with a statistically significant increase in the risk of an unfavorable outcome (62% versus 38%). When the initial scan demonstrated evidence of swelling or shift, there was a nonsignificant trend in the opposite direction, although the numbers were limited.
Conclusion: When an admission CT scan demonstrates evidence of a diffuse injury, follow-up scans should be performed, because approximately one in six such patients will demonstrate significant CT evolution. In studies comparing series of head-injured patients, correspondence of timing of CT scans is necessary for valid comparison.