Kids don’t always need CT scans

UC DAVIS (US) — Monitoring children who come into emergency rooms with minor head trauma instead of immediately ordering a CT scan avoids radiation exposure without compromising care.

“Only 2 to 3 percent of children with head trauma really have something serious going on,” says Lise Nigrovic, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard University, who co-authored a new study with Nathan Kuppermann, professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at University of California,  Davis. “If you can be watched in the emergency department for a few hours, you may not need a CT.”

The study, published online in the journal Pediatrics, notes that a child’s growing brain tissue is more sensitive to radiation and, because of longer life expectancy, the risk of developing a radiation-induced malignancy is greater.

“There is a clear need to develop appropriate and safe guidelines for decreasing the number of inappropriate head CT scans that we do on children,” Kuppermann says.

“A period of observation before deciding to use head CT scans on many injured children can spare them from inappropriate radiation when it is not called for, while not increasing the risk of missing important brain injuries.”

The results stem from a sub-analysis of a large prospective study published in the Lancet in 2009 by the national Pediatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network (PECARN) and led by Kuppermann, which showed that a substantial percentage of children who get CT scans after apparently minor head trauma do not need them, and as a result are put at unnecessary risk of cancer due to radiation exposure.

The new study went back and looked at those 40,113 children whose records could be analyzed with regard to an observation period before CT decision-making and found that 5,433 (14 percent) were observed before making a decision about CT use. Observation times varied, as did the severity of head trauma.

Overall, the children who were observed had a lower rate of CT than those not observed (31 vs. 35 percent). Clinically important traumatic brain injury, resulting in death, neurosurgical intervention, intubation for more than 24 hours or hospital admission for two nights or more, was equally uncommon in the observed and non-observed groups (0.75 vs. 0.87 percent).

When the researchers matched the two groups for severity of head injury and the practice style of different hospitals, the benefits of allowing an observation period were much more pronounced: The observed group received CT scans only about half as often as similar non-observed patients (odds ratio, 0.53). In particular, children whose symptoms improved during observation were less likely to eventually have CT.

“It’s not that a CT is bad if you really need it, but you don’t want to use it in children who are at low risk,” says Nigrovic. “For parents, this means spending a couple of extra hours in the emergency department in exchange for not getting a CT.

“It’s the middle-risk group of children—those who aren’t totally normal at the start of the ED visit, but whose injury also isn’t obviously severe—where observation before deciding on a CT can really help.”

The researchers were unable to determine the actual observation times in the hospitals they studied, a question they would like to investigate in the future. Practice guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend a child be carefully observed for 4 to 6 hours after injury.

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration/Maternal and Child Health Bureau, Division of Research, Training, and Education, and the agency’s Emergency Medical Services for Children Program.

More news from UC Davis: