Evaluations for abuse in young children with subdural hemorrhages: findings based on symptom severity and benign enlargement of the subarachnoid spaces

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Children who have subdural hematomas (SDHs) with no or minimal neurological symptoms (SDH-mild symptoms) often present a forensic challenge. Nonabusive causes of SDH, including birth-related SDH, benign enlargement of the subarachnoid spaces (BESS), and other proposed causes have been offered as etiologies. These alternative causes do not provide explanations for concomitant suspicious injuries (CSIs). If SDH with mild symptoms in young children are frequently caused by these alternative causes, children with SDH-mild symptoms should be more likely to have no other CSIs than those who have SDH with severe symptoms (SDH-severe symptoms). Additionally, if SDH with mild symptoms is caused by something other than abuse, the location and distribution of the SDH may be different than an SDH caused by abuse. The objectives of this study were to determine the prevalence of other CSIs in patients who present with SDH-mild symptoms and to compare that prevalence to patients with SDH-severe symptoms. Additionally, this study sought to compare the locations and distributions of SDH between the two groups. Finally, given the data supporting BESS as a potential cause of SDH in young children, the authors sought to evaluate the associations of BESS with SDH-mild symptoms and with other CSIs.


The authors performed a 5-year retrospective case-control study of patients younger than 2 years of age with SDH evaluated by a Child Abuse Pediatrics program. Patients were classified as having SDH-mild symptoms (cases) or SDH-severe symptoms (controls). The two groups were compared for the prevalence of other CSIs. Additionally, the locations and distribution of SDH were compared between the two groups. The presence of BESS was evaluated for associations with symptoms and other CSIs.


Of 149 patients, 43 presented with SDH-mild symptoms and 106 with SDH-severe symptoms. Patients with SDH-mild symptoms were less likely to have other CSIs (odds ratio [OR] 0.2, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.08–0.5) and less likely to have severe retinal hemorrhages (OR 0.08, 95% CI 0.03–0.3). However, 60.5% of patients with SDH-mild symptoms had other CSIs. There was no difference between the groups regarding the location and distribution of SDH. Of the entire study cohort, 34 (22.8%) had BESS, and BESS was present in 17 (39.5%) of the SDH-mild symptoms group and 17 (16%) of the SDH-severe symptoms group (OR 3.4, 95% CI 1.5–7.6). The presence of BESS was significantly associated with a lower chance of other CSIs (OR 0.1, 95% CI 0.05–0.3). However, 17 patients had BESS and other CSIs. Of these 17, 6 had BESS and SDH-mild symptoms.


The high occurrence of other CSIs in patients with SDH-mild symptoms and a similar high occurrence in patients with BESS (including those with SDH-mild symptoms) indicate that such children benefit from a full evaluation for abuse.

ABBREVIATIONS AHT = abusive head trauma; BESS = benign enlargement of the subarachnoid spaces; CAP = Child Abuse Pediatrics; CSI = concomitant suspicious injury; SDH = subdural hematoma.

Article Information

Correspondence James Anderst, Department of Pediatrics, Children’s Mercy Hospital, 2401 Gillham Rd., Kansas City, MO 64108. email: jdanderst@cmh.edu.

INCLUDE WHEN CITING Published online November 3, 2017; DOI: 10.3171/2017.7.PEDS17317.

Disclosures Dr. Anderst reports that he has served as a consultant to the prosecution and defense in cases of alleged child abuse.

© AANS, except where prohibited by US copyright law.




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