Odds of abuse associated with retinal hemorrhages in children suspected of child abuse

J AAPOS. 2009 Jun;13(3):268-72. doi: 10.1016/j.jaapos.2009.03.005.


Purpose: To describe the prevalence of retinal hemorrhages in children being evaluated for abusive head trauma and quantify the association between the likelihood of abuse and the presence and severity of retinal hemorrhages.

Methods: Retrospective cross-sectional study of 110 children aged 15 months or younger who were evaluated for abusive head trauma and received an ophthalmological examination. The child abuse specialist's diagnosis was categorized as definite accident, probable accident, probable abuse, or definite abuse, according to an algorithm that excluded eye findings. Retinal hemorrhage severity was scored on a 12-point scale (6 points per eye) based on type, size, location, and extent. Higher scores indicated greater severity of eye findings.

Results: Seventy-four percent of children were younger than 6 months old. Forty-five percent of cases were definite abuse and 37% were definite accident. The prevalence of retinal hemorrhages was 32%. Across all subjects, the presence of retinal hemorrhage was highly associated with definite or probable abuse versus definite or probable accident (age-adjusted odds ratio 5.4 [95% CI, 2.1-13.6]). The odds ratio in children younger than 6 months (n = 81) was 11.7 (95% CI, 2.9-66.8). Retinal hemorrhage severity was higher in abuse versus accident (p < 0.0001) and correlated positively with abuse (Spearman r = 0.406, p < 0.0001). Scores above 8 (n = 13) were only present in abused children.

Conclusions: Retinal hemorrhages are highly associated with abusive head trauma, particularly in children younger than 6 months of age. Increasing retinal hemorrhage severity is correlated with increasing likelihood of abuse.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Child Abuse / statistics & numerical data*
  • Craniocerebral Trauma / epidemiology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Philadelphia / epidemiology
  • Prevalence
  • Retinal Hemorrhage / epidemiology*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Severity of Illness Index