Abusive head injury as a cause of apparent life-threatening events in infancy

Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2003 Oct;157(10):1011-5. doi: 10.1001/archpedi.157.10.1011.


Background: An apparent life-threatening event (ALTE) refers to the sudden occurrence of a breathing abnormality, color change, or alteration in muscle tone or mental status in an infant. Several patients with ALTEs admitted to our institution were found to have sustained abusive head injuries.

Objective: To systematically examine the possible causes of ALTEs and their relative frequencies.

Study design: Prospective consecutive case series of 243 infants younger than 12 months admitted to a tertiary care academic medical center for evaluation of an ALTE during a 32-month interval.

Results: Thirty-five different causes of ALTEs were identified. Six subjects (2.5%) were diagnosed as having abusive head injuries, or 1 admission every 5 months. Three patients died in the hospital, 2 of whom were diagnosed as having abusive head injuries.

Conclusions: A wide spectrum of diseases and disorders can precipitate an ALTE. Among them, abusive head injury, a recently recognized cause, occurs frequently enough to obligate its inclusion in the differential diagnosis. An ophthalmologic evaluation with dilated fundus examination and cranial imaging should therefore be considered early in the investigation unless another cause becomes apparent soon after admission.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Child Abuse* / diagnosis
  • Craniocerebral Trauma / diagnosis
  • Craniocerebral Trauma / etiology*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Welfare
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Length of Stay
  • Life Change Events*
  • Male
  • New York
  • Patient Discharge
  • Prospective Studies
  • Sudden Infant Death / diagnosis
  • Sudden Infant Death / etiology