Does routine serial computed tomography of the head influence management of traumatic brain injury? A prospective evaluation

J Trauma. 2004 Nov;57(5):939-43. doi: 10.1097/01.ta.0000149492.92558.03.


Background: Computed tomography (CT) of the head is the current standard for diagnosing intracranial pathology following blunt head trauma. It is common practice to repeat the head CT to evaluate any progression of injury. Recent retrospective reviews have challenged the need for serial head CT after traumatic brain injury (TBI). This study intends to prospectively examine the value of routine serial head CT after TBI.

Methods: Consecutive adult blunt trauma patients with an abnormal head CT admitted to an urban, Level I trauma center from January 2003 to September 2003 were prospectively studied. Variables collected included: initial head CT results, indication for repeat head CT (routine versus neurologic change), number and results of repeat head CT scans, and clinical interventions following repeat head CT.

Results: Over the 9-month period, there were 128 patients admitted with an abnormal head CT after sustaining blunt trauma. The 16 patients who died within 24 hours and the 12 patients who went directly to craniotomy were excluded. The remaining 100 patients make up the study population. Abnormal head CT findings were subarachnoid hemorrhage (47%), intraparenchymal hemorrhage (37%), subdural hematoma (28%), contusion (14%), epidural hematoma (11%), intraventricular hemorrhage (3%), and diffuse axonal injury (2%). Overall, 32 patients (32%) had only the admission head CT, while 68 patients (68%) underwent 90 repeat CT scans. Of the repeat head CT scans, 81 (90%) were performed on a routine basis without neurologic change. The remaining 9 (10%) were performed for a change in Glasgow Coma Scale (n = 5), change in intracranial pressure (n = 1), change in Glasgow Coma Scale and intracranial pressure (n = 1), change in pupil size (n = 1), or sudden appearance of a headache (n = 1). Three patients had their care altered after repeat head CT: two underwent craniotomy and one was started on barbiturate therapy. All three patients had their repeat head CT after neurologic change (decrease in Glasgow Coma Scale in 2 and increase in intracranial pressure in 1).

Conclusions: Serial head CT is common after TBI. Most repeat head CT scans are performed on a routine basis without neurologic change. Few patients with TBI have their management altered after repeat head CT, and these patients have neurologic deterioration before the repeat head CT. The use of routine serial head CT in patients without neurologic deterioration is not supported by the findings of this study.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Hemorrhage, Traumatic / diagnostic imaging*
  • Brain Hemorrhage, Traumatic / therapy
  • Diagnostic Tests, Routine
  • Female
  • Glasgow Coma Scale
  • Head / diagnostic imaging
  • Head Injuries, Closed / diagnostic imaging*
  • Head Injuries, Closed / therapy
  • Hospitals, University
  • Humans
  • Length of Stay
  • Los Angeles
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Time Factors
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed / statistics & numerical data*
  • Trauma Centers