Background: The value of routine skull radiography as a method of predicting intracranial injury is controversial. We aimed to assess the effectiveness of skull radiography by prospectively studying head-injured children admitted to a children's hospital that serves an urban population.
Methods: Over a 2-year period, 9269 children attended our accident and emergency department with head injury, and 6011 were referred for skull radiography. All children who were admitted to hospital or had a skull fracture (n = 883) were included in the study. Computed tomography (CT) was done in children with skull fractures on radiography and in those without fractures if there were neurological indications.
Findings: Radiographs showed 162 fractures (2.7% of all radiographs and 18% of study group radiographs). Staff in the accident and emergency department missed 37 (23%) fractures. CT scan was done on 156 children, of whom 107 had a skull fracture. 23 children were found to have intracranial injuries on CT. The presence of neurological abnormalities had a sensitivity for identification of intracranial injury of 91% (21 of 23) and a negative predictive value of 97%. The corresponding values for skull fracture on radiography were 65% (15 of 23) and 83%. Four children died, of whom only one had a skull fracture.
Interpretation: In children, severe intracranial injury can occur in the absence of skull fracture. Skull radiography is not a reliable predictor of intracranial injury and is indicated only to confirm or exclude a suspected depressed fracture or penetrating injury, and when non-accidental injury is suspected, including in all infants younger than 2 years. Clinical neurological abnormalities are a reliable predictor of intracranial injury. If imaging is required, it should be with CT and not skull radiography.