Incidental CT findings in trauma patients: incidence and implications for care of the injured

J Trauma. 2007 Jan;62(1):157-61. doi: 10.1097/


Background: The evaluation of patients with head, neck, and torso trauma frequently includes high-definition spiral computed tomography (SCT) scanning, which can reveal non-injury-related lesions. These incidental findings vary in their importance, from trivial lesions to findings that may have a greater impact on the health of the trauma patient than the injuries that led to the SCT. We evaluated the incidence and clinical importance of incidental findings found on SCT, and the effectiveness of a trauma practice guideline calling for appropriate management and follow-up.

Methods: The trauma registry was accessed to identify patients evaluated at an urban Level I trauma center from January to November, 2002. Trauma registry data, inpatient chart records, and the digital record of the filmless radiology archives were reviewed. Demographic data, including age, sex, type and mechanism of injury, and outcome, were recorded. All CT studies were reviewed for incidental findings. Mucus retention cysts, sinusitis (except mastoiditis), degenerative joint disease, evidence of previous operation, and age-related cerebral atrophy were excluded. Incidental findings were divided into three categories based on clinical importance. Category 1 required attention before discharge. Category 2 required follow-up with primary doctor within 1 or 2 weeks, and Category 3 required no specific follow-up. Categories 1 and 2 were considered clinically significant findings.

Results: Complete data were available for 991 patients (677 men, 314 women). Eight hundred and forty-eight (85.6%) patients received at least one CT scan. A total of 289 incidental findings were discovered. Thirty-one patients (3.1%) had 36 Category 1 findings. There were 108 Category 2 and 145 Category 3 findings. When comparing those patients with at least one incidental finding, the incidence of incidental findings was higher in women than in men (34.1% versus 27.6%; p < 0.05). Older patients also had a higher incidence of all categories of findings (over 40 versus 40 and younger: 46.1% versus 19.9%; p < 0.001). SCT yielded 90 (62.5%) of the clinically significant incidental findings in the abdomen/pelvis, 29 (20.1%) in the chest, and 25 (17.4%) in the head and neck. The charts of only 15 (48.4%) of the patients with Category 1 findings adequately documented the management of the incidental finding.

Conclusions: SCT for the evaluation of trauma patients reveals a significant number of incidental findings. These lesions are common in the abdomen and pelvis and show an increased incidence in women and among older patients. Although many require early follow-up and specialty physician referral, there was insufficient documentation of the management of these injuries. Incidental findings in the injured remain a significant challenge for trauma centers. An organized approach is required for successful follow-up and management.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • California
  • Documentation
  • Female
  • Guideline Adherence*
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Incidental Findings*
  • Male
  • Nurse Practitioners
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Referral and Consultation*
  • Registries / statistics & numerical data
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Tomography, Spiral Computed*
  • Trauma Centers / statistics & numerical data
  • Wounds and Injuries / diagnostic imaging*
  • Wounds and Injuries / therapy