Head Injury in Children
What is a head injury?
Head injuries are one of the most common causes of disability and death in children.
The injury can be as mild as a bump, bruise (contusion), or cut on the head, or can
be moderate to severe in nature due to a concussion, deep cut or open wound, fractured
skull bone(s), or from internal bleeding and damage to the brain.
A head injury is a broad term that describes a vast array of injuries that occur to
the scalp, skull, brain, and underlying tissue and blood vessels in the child's head.
Head injuries are also commonly referred to as brain injury, or traumatic brain injury
(TBI), depending on the extent of the head trauma.
What is a concussion?
A concussion is an injury to the head area that may cause instant loss of awareness
or alertness for a few minutes up to a few hours after the traumatic event. Some concussions
are mild and brief, and the person or untrained observer may not recognize that a
concussion has occurred.
What is a contusion?
A contusion is a bruise to the brain. A contusion causes bleeding and swelling inside
of the brain around the area where the head was struck, or sometimes on the opposite
side of the head due to the brain hitting the skull.
What is a skull fracture?
A skull fracture is a break in the skull bone. There are 4 major types of skull fractures:
Linear skull fractures. In a linear fracture, there is a break in the bone, but it does not move the bone.
In many instances, these children can be observed in the emergency department or the
hospital for a brief amount of time, and can usually resume normal activities in a
few days. No interventions are usually necessary.
Depressed skull fractures. This type of fracture may be seen with or without a cut in the scalp. In this fracture,
part of the skull is actually sunken in from the trauma. If the inner part of the
skull is pressed against the brain, this type of skull fracture requires surgical
intervention to help correct the deformity.
Diastatic skull fractures. These are fractures that occur along the suture lines in the skull. The sutures are
the areas between the bones in the head that fuse with the growth of the child. In
this type of fracture, the normal suture lines are widened. These fractures are more
often seen in newborns and infants.
Basilar skull fracture. This can be a serious type of skull fracture, and involves a break in the bone at
the base of the skull. Children with this type of fracture frequently have bruises
around their eyes and a bruise behind their ear. They may also have clear fluid draining
from their nose or ears due to a tear in part of the covering of the brain. These
children sometimes require close observation in the hospital.
What causes a head injury?
There are many causes of head injury in children. The more common injuries are sports
injuries, falls, motor vehicle accidents (where the child is either riding as a passenger
in the car or is struck as a pedestrian), or a result of child abuse.
The risk of head injury is high in the adolescent population and is twice as frequent
in males than in females. Studies show that head injuries are more common in the spring
and summer months when children are usually very active in outdoor activities such
as riding bicycles, in-line skating, or skateboarding. The most common time associated
with head injuries is late in the afternoon to early evening hours, and on weekends.
Although usually not life threatening, head injury that occurs in competitive sports
such as football, soccer, hockey, and basketball can result in concussion and postconcussive
What causes bruising and internal damage to the brain?
When there is a direct blow to the head, shaking of the child (as seen in many cases
of child abuse), or a whiplash-type injury (as seen in motor vehicle accidents), the
bruising of the brain and the damage to the internal tissue and blood vessels is due
to a mechanism called coup-countrecoup. A bruise directly related to trauma, at the
site of impact, is called a coup lesion (pronounced COO). As the brain jolts backwards,
it can hit the skull on the opposite side and cause a bruise called a countrecoup
lesion. The jarring of the brain against the sides of the skull can cause tearing
of the internal lining, tissues, and blood vessels that may cause internal bleeding,
bruising, or swelling of the brain.
What are the symptoms of a head injury?
The following are the most common symptoms of a head injury. The child may have varying
degrees of symptoms associated with the severity of the head injury. The symptoms
of a mild head injury may include:
How are head injuries diagnosed?
The full extent of the problem may not be completely understood right after the injury,
but may be revealed with a comprehensive medical evaluation and diagnostic testing.
The diagnosis of a head injury is made with a physical exam and diagnostic tests.
During the exam, the doctor obtains a complete medical history of the child and family
and asks how the injury occurred. Trauma to the head can cause neurological problems
and may require further medical follow up.
Diagnostic tests may include:
X-ray. A diagnostic test that uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images
of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies,
and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.
Computed tomography scan (also called a CT or CAT scan). A diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology
to produce horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan
shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat,
and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays. Although an X-ray is useful
when looking for a skull fracture, most skull fractures can also be detected by a
CT scan, which also produces images of the brain. If a brain injury is suspected,
a CT scan alone may be used to reduce the amount of radiation the patient receives,
Electroencephalogram (EEG). A procedure that records the brain's continuous, electrical activity by means of electrodes
attached to the scalp.
Treatment of a head injury
Your child’s health care provider will figure out the best treatment based on:
How old child is
His or her overall health and medical history
How sick he or she is
How well your child can handle specific medications, procedures, or therapies
How long the condition is expected to last
Your opinion or preference
Depending on the severity of the injury, treatment may include:
Topical antibiotic ointment and adhesive bandage
Immediate medical attention
Hospitalization for observation
Moderate sedation or assistance with breathing that would require being placed on
a breathing machine, also called a mechanical ventilator or mechanical respirator
Referral to a traumatic brain injury specialist for postconcussive syndrome
Treatment is individualized depending on the extent of the condition and the presence
of other injuries. If your child has a head injury, he or she may require monitoring
for increased intracranial pressure (pressure inside the skull). Head injury may cause
the brain to swell. Since the brain is covered by the skull, there is only a small
amount of room for it to swell. This causes pressure inside the skull to increase,
which can lead to brain damage.
How is ICP monitored?
Intracranial pressure is measured in two ways. One way is to place a small hollow
tube (catheter) into the fluid-filled space in the brain (ventricle). Other times,
a small hollow device (bolt) is placed through the skull into the space just between
the skull and the brain. Both devices are inserted by the doctor either in the intensive
care unit or in the operating room. The ICP device is then attached to a monitor that
gives a constant reading of the pressure inside the skull. If the pressure goes up,
it can be treated right away. While the ICP device is in place your child will be
given medicine to stay comfortable. When the swelling has gone down and there is little
chance of more swelling, the device will be removed.
Lifelong considerations for a child with a head injury
The key is to promote a safe playing environment for children and to prevent head
injuries from occurring. The use of seat belts when riding in the car and helmets
(when worn properly) for activities, such as bicycle riding, in-line skating, and
skateboarding may protect the head from sustaining severe injuries.
Children who suffer a severe brain injury may lose part(s) of muscle, speech, vision,
hearing, or taste function depending on the area of brain damage. Long- or short-term
changes in personality or behavior may also occur. These children require lifelong
medical and rehabilitative (physical, occupational, or speech therapy) management.
The extent of the child's recovery depends on the type of brain injury and other medical
problems that may be present. It is important to focus on maximizing the child's capabilities
at home and in the community. Positive reinforcement will encourage the child to strengthen
his or her self-esteem and promote independence.