Orthopaedic aspects of child abuse

J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2000 Jan-Feb;8(1):10-20. doi: 10.5435/00124635-200001000-00002.


Increased awareness of child abuse has led to better understanding of this complex problem. However, the annual incidence of abuse is estimated at 15 to 42 cases per 1,000 children and appears to be increasing. More than 1 million children each year are the victims of substantiated abuse or neglect, and more than 1,200 children die each year as a result of abuse. The diagnosis of child abuse is seldom easy to make and requires a careful consideration of sociobehavioral factors and clinical findings. Because manifestations of physical abuse involve the entire child, a thorough history and a complete examination are essential. Fractures are the second most common presentation of physical abuse after skin lesions, and approximately one third of abused children will eventually be seen by an orthopaedic surgeon. Thus, it is essential that the orthopaedist have an understanding of the manifestations of physical abuse, to increase the likelihood of recognition and appropriate management. There is no pathognomonic fracture pattern in abuse. Rather, the age of the child, the overall injury pattern, the stated mechanism of injury, and pertinent psychosocial factors must all be considered in each case. Musculoskeletal injury patterns suggestive of nonaccidental injury include certain metaphyseal lesions in young children, multiple fractures in various stages of healing, posterior rib fractures, and long-bone fractures in children less than 2 years old. Skeletal surveys and bone scintigraphy with follow-up radiography may be of benefit in cases of suspected abuse of younger children. The differential diagnosis of abuse includes other conditions that may cause fractures, such as true accidental injury, osteogenesis imperfecta, and metabolic bone disease. Management should be multidisciplinary, with the key being recognition, because abused children have a substantial risk of repeated abuse and death.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child Abuse*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Fractures, Bone / etiology
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Infant
  • Musculoskeletal System / injuries
  • Skin / injuries