Abusive head trauma: past, present, and future

J Child Neurol. 2014 Dec;29(12):1747-56. doi: 10.1177/0883073814549995. Epub 2014 Oct 14.


Abusive head trauma has a robust and interesting scientific history. Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics has endorsed a change in terminology to a term that is more general in describing the vast array of abusive mechanisms that can result in pediatric head injury. Simply defined, abusive head trauma is "child physical abuse that results in injury to the head or brain." Abusive head trauma is a relatively common cause of childhood neurotrauma, with an estimated incidence of 16 to 33 cases per 100,000 children per year in the first 2 years of life. Clinical findings are variable; AHT should be considered in all children with neurologic signs and symptoms, especially if no or only mild trauma is described. Subdural and retinal hemorrhages are the most common findings. The current best evidence-based literature has identified some features--apnea and severe retinal hemorrhages--that reliably discriminate abusive from accidental injury. Longitudinal studies of outcomes in abusive head trauma patients demonstrate that approximately one-third of the children are severely disabled, one third of them are moderately disabled, and one third have no or only mild symptoms. Abusive head trauma cases are complex cases that require a rigorous, multidisciplinary team approach. The clinician can establish this diagnosis with confidence if he/she maintains a high index of suspicion for the diagnosis, has knowledge of the signs, symptoms, and risk factors of abusive head trauma, and reasonably excludes other etiologies on the differential diagnosis.

Keywords: abusive head trauma; child abuse; inflicted brain injury; nonaccidental trauma; pediatric traumatic brain injury; shaken baby syndrome.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Craniocerebral Trauma / complications
  • Craniocerebral Trauma / diagnosis*
  • Craniocerebral Trauma / epidemiology*
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Retinal Hemorrhage / etiology