Imaging of spinal injury in abusive head trauma: a retrospective study

Pediatr Radiol. 2014 Sep;44(9):1130-40. doi: 10.1007/s00247-014-2959-3. Epub 2014 Apr 1.


Background: Spinal imaging has been a neglected part of abusive head trauma (AHT) imaging. As most of the radiographs and CT spine are negative in AHT in infants, the cervical spine is assumed to be normal. There is increasing evidence in the role of injury to brainstem and cervical cord in the pathogenesis of AHT. In addition, in courts of law, there is fierce debate about AHT, its mimics and other disparate nontraumatic diagnoses explaining the neuroradiological and skeletal findings. However, this discussion ignores the evidence and significance of spinal injury. We sought to study the cervical spine in an AHT cohort to understand the true prevalence of spinal injuries in AHT and contrast it with cohorts of accidental and nontraumatic groups to give the clinicians a robust diagnostic tool in evaluating AHT.

Objective: The purpose of this study is to compare the relative incidence of spinal ligamentous and soft-tissue abnormalities on spinal MRI among three groups of children ages <48 months: 1) those with AHT, 2) those with accidental trauma, and 3) those with nontraumatic conditions.

Materials and methods: This comparative study included 183 children who underwent spine MRI: 67 with AHT, 46 with accidental trauma and a clinical suspicion of spinal injury, and 70 with nontraumatic conditions. Clinical and radiographic findings were collected in all cases and were analyzed retrospectively to identify MRI evidence of traumatic spinal injuries. The incidence of spinal injuries among the three groups was compared. The incidence of spinal ligamentous injuries was calculated for those with and without radiographic evidence of hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy. All comparisons were performed using Fisher exact test with P < 0.05 considered statistically significant.

Results: Cervical spine ligamentous injuries (predominantly the nuchal, atlanto-occipital and atlanto-axial ligaments) were present in 78% of the AHT group, 46% of the accidental trauma group and 1% of the nontraumatic group; all of these differences were statistically significant. Among the AHT group, ligamentous injuries were statistically correlated with evidence of brain ischemia.

Conclusion: Injury to the cervical spinal posterior ligamentous complex is common in AHT and even more prevalent than in clinically symptomatic traumatic cases. The high correlation between the radiographic findings of occipitocervical ligamentous injuries and hypoxic-ischemic brain injury is consistent with an interpretation that transient upper occipitocervical spinal cord injury in AHT leads to disordered breathing and results in hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy. We recommend imaging the entire spine in AHT to properly identify and classify these injuries.

MeSH terms

  • Brain Stem / injuries*
  • Child Abuse / diagnosis*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Craniocerebral Trauma / diagnosis*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Ligaments / injuries*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Neck Injuries / diagnosis*
  • Prevalence
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Spinal Injuries / diagnosis*