Symposium: Nonaccidental Trauma in Children

Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research®

, Volume 469, Issue 3, pp 776-789

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

The Radiographic Approach to Child Abuse

  • Jerry R. DwekAffiliated withDepartment of Radiology, Rady Children’s Hospital and Health Center, University of California at San Diego Email author 



Osseous injuries are a major facet of child abuse and in most patients radiographic imaging plays a major role in diagnosis. While some injuries are typically produced as a result of excessive and inappropriate force other injuries are nonspecific in terms of their causation, but become suspicious when the history provided by the caretakers is inconsistent with the type of injury produced.


I detail the radiographic imaging of the more characteristic of the highly specific injuries, discuss the major issues that relate to some moderate- or low-specificity injuries, and describe several diseases that mimic abuse.


A review of the current and recent literature focused on the radiographic imaging of child abuse was performed by searching the National Library of Medicine database at Keywords used included: radiology, fracture, child abuse, and/or nonaccidental trauma.


Injuries that are highly specific for the diagnosis of abuse include metaphyseal corner fractures, posteromedial rib fractures, and sternal, scapular, and spinous process fractures. Lesions of moderate specificity include, among other injuries, multiple fractures of various ages and epiphyseal separations. Long-bone fractures and clavicular fractures, while common, are of low specificity. In addition to the appropriate accurate diagnosis of these injuries, several diseases and syndromes may mimic abuse due to the similarity in the radiographic picture.


Stratification of fractures sustained in child abuse according to specificity and an understanding of the several diseases that mimic abuse are helpful in the accurate diagnosis of child abuse.

Level of Evidence

Level V, diagnostic study. See Guidelines for Authors for a complete description of levels of evidence.