Characteristics associated with spine injury on magnetic resonance imaging in children evaluated for abusive head trauma

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Spine injuries are increasingly common in the evaluation for abusive head trauma (AHT), but additional information is needed to explore the utility of spine MRI in AHT evaluations and to ensure an accurate understanding of injury mechanism.


To assess the incidence of spine injury on MRI in children evaluated for AHT, and to correlate spine MRI findings with clinical characteristics.

Materials and methods

We identified children younger than 5 years who were evaluated for AHT with spine MRI. Abuse likelihood was determined a priori by expert consensus. We blindly reviewed spine MRIs and compared spinal injury, abuse likelihood, patient demographics, severity of brain injury, presence of retinal hemorrhages, and pattern of head injury between children with and without spine injury.


Forty-five of 76 (59.2%) children had spine injury. Spine injury was associated with more severe injury (longer intensive care stays [P<0.001], lower initial mental status [P=0.01] and longer ventilation times [P=0.001]). Overall abuse likelihood and spine injury were not associated. Spinal subdural hemorrhage was the only finding associated with a combination of retinal hemorrhages (P=0.01), noncontact head injuries (P=0.008) and a diagnosis of AHT (P<0.05). Spinal subdural hemorrhage was associated with other spine injury (P=0.004) but not with intracranial hemorrhage (P=0.28).


Spinal injury is seen in most children evaluated for AHT and might be clinically and forensically valuable. Spinal subdural hemorrhage might support a mechanism of severe acceleration/deceleration head injury and a diagnosis of AHT.

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Correspondence to Angela L. Rabbitt.

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Rabbitt, A.L., Kelly, T.G., Yan, K. et al. Characteristics associated with spine injury on magnetic resonance imaging in children evaluated for abusive head trauma. Pediatr Radiol 50, 83–97 (2020) doi:10.1007/s00247-019-04517-y

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  • Abusive head trauma
  • Child abuse
  • Children
  • Infants
  • Magnetic resonance imaging
  • Spine
  • Subdural hemorrhage
  • Trauma