A Biomechanical Assessment of Shaken Baby Syndrome: What About the Spine?

World Neurosurg. 2022 Jul;163:e223-e229. doi: 10.1016/j.wneu.2022.03.104. Epub 2022 Mar 30.


Background: Shaken baby syndrome occurs following inertial loading of the pediatric head, resulting in retinal hemorrhaging, subdural hematoma, and encephalopathy. However, the anatomically vulnerable cervical spine receives little attention. Automotive safety literature is replete with biomechanical data involving forward-facing pediatric surrogates in frontal collisions, an environment analogous to shaking. Publicly available data involving child occupants were utilized to study pediatric neck and head injury potential. We hypothesized that inertial loading provides a greater risk of injury to the cervical spine than to the head.

Methods: Full-scale automotive crash tests (n = 131) and deceleration sled tests (n = 32) utilizing forward-facing 3-year-old surrogates with head accelerometers and cervical force sensors were analyzed. One hundred sixty-seven full-scale vehicle and 33 sled test runs were assessed in the context of published injury assessment reference values (IARVs) for closed head injury (head injury criterion 15 [HIC15]) and cervical tensile strength in the 3-year-old model.

Results: One hundred sixty-one (96%) child surrogates in full-scale crash tests exceeded the cervical peak tension IARV, while only 37 (22%) surpassed the HIC15 IARV. Similarly, in sled testing runs, 27 (82%) pediatric surrogates exceeded cervical tension IARVs, while 1 (3%) surpassed the HIC15 IARV. In both full-scale and sled tests, all surrogates surpassing the HIC15 IARV also exceeded the cervical tension IARV. Positive linear correlations were observed between HIC15 and cervical tensile forces in both full-scale vehicle (R2 = 0.15) and sled testing runs (R2 = 0.54).

Conclusions: These data support the hypothesis that inertial loading of the head provides a greater injury risk to the cervical spine than to closed-head injury.

Keywords: Abusive head trauma; Automotive safety; Biomechanics; Craniocervical trauma; Pediatric head trauma; Pediatrics; Shaken baby syndrome.

MeSH terms

  • Acceleration
  • Accidents, Traffic
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Cervical Vertebrae
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Craniocerebral Trauma*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Neck
  • Shaken Baby Syndrome* / diagnosis