Usefulness of MRI detection of cervical spine and brain injuries in the evaluation of abusive head trauma

Pediatr Radiol. 2014 Jul;44(7):839-48. doi: 10.1007/s00247-014-2874-7. Epub 2014 Feb 21.


Background: In the evaluation of children younger than 3 years with intracranial hemorrhage it can be difficult to determine whether the cause of hemorrhage was traumatic, and if so, whether abusive head trauma (AHT) is a possibility. Cervical spine MRI is not a routine part of the nationally recommended imaging workup for children with suspected abusive head trauma. There is increasing evidence that spinal injuries are found at autopsy or MRI in abused children. However the prevalence of cervical spine injuries in children evaluated for abusive head trauma is unknown. We sought to determine both the incidence and the spectrum of cervical spine and brain injuries in children being evaluated for possible abusive head trauma. We also examined the relationship between cervical and brain MRI findings and selected study outcome categories.

Materials and methods: This study is a 3-year retrospective review of children evaluated for abusive head trauma. Inclusion criteria were: children with head trauma seen at our institution between 2008 and 2010, age younger than 36 months, availability of diagnostic-quality brain and cervical spine MRI, and child abuse team involvement because abusive head trauma was a possibility. A child abuse pediatrician and pediatric radiologists, all with board certification, were involved in data collection, image interpretation and data analysis. Statistical analysis was performed using Stata v12.1.

Results: The study included 74 children (43 boys, 31 girls) with a mean age of 164 days (range, 20-679 days). Study outcomes were categorized as: n = 26 children with accidental head trauma, n = 38 with abusive head trauma (n = 18 presumptive AHT, n = 20 suspicious for AHT), and n = 10 with undefined head trauma. We found cervical spine injuries in 27/74 (36%) children. Most cervical spine injuries were ligamentous injuries. One child had intrathecal spinal blood and two had spinal cord edema; all three of these children had ligamentous injury. MRI signs of cervical injury did not show a statistically significant relationship with a study outcome of abusive head trauma or help discriminate between accidental and abusive head trauma. Of the 30 children with supratentorial brain injury, 16 (53%) had a bilateral hypoxic-ischemic pattern. There was a statistically significant relationship between bilateral hypoxic-ischemic brain injury pattern and abusive head trauma (P < 0.05). In addition, the majority (81%) of children with bilateral hypoxic-ischemic brain injuries had cervical injuries.

Conclusion: Although detection of cervical spine injuries by MRI does not discriminate between accidental and abusive head trauma, it can help to distinguish a traumatic from non-traumatic intracranial subdural hemorrhage. Cervical MRI should be considered in children with acute intracranial bleeds and otherwise non-contributory history, physical examination and ophthalmological findings. There is a statistically significant relationship between diffuse hypoxic-ischemic brain injury patterns and abusive head trauma. The high incidence of cervical injuries in children with hypoxic-ischemic injuries suggests a causal relationship. Overall, increased utilization of brain and spine MRI in children being evaluated for abusive head trauma can be helpful.

MeSH terms

  • Brain Injuries / pathology*
  • Brain Ischemia / pathology
  • Cervical Vertebrae / injuries*
  • Cervical Vertebrae / pathology*
  • Child Abuse / diagnosis*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Hematoma, Subdural / pathology
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Longitudinal Ligaments / injuries
  • Longitudinal Ligaments / pathology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Soft Tissue Injuries / pathology
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / pathology
  • Subarachnoid Hemorrhage / pathology