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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. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that traumatic brain injury results in 2,685 deaths, 37,000 hospitalizations, and 435,000 emergency department visits in children up to 14 years of age.

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.

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.

What is a skull fracture?

A skull fracture is a break in the skull bone. There are four major types of skull fractures, including the following:

  • linear skull fractures
    This type accounts for almost 70 percent of skull fractures. In a linear fracture, there is a break in the bone, but it does not move the bone. These children are usually observed in 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. Usually, 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 older infants.
  • basilar skull fracture
    This is the most 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 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 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.

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-countercoup. 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 countercoup lesion. The jarring of the brain against the sides of the skull can cause shearing (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. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. 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:

  • mild head injury:
    • raised, swollen area from a bump or a bruise
    • small, superficial (shallow) cut in the scalp
    • headache
    • sensitivity to noise and light
    • irritability
    • confusion
    • lightheadedness and/or dizziness
    • problems with balance
    • nausea
    • problems with memory and/or concentration
    • change in sleep patterns
    • blurred vision
    • "tired" eyes
    • ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
    • alteration in taste
    • fatigue/lethargy
  • moderate to severe head injury (that requires immediate medical attention)-symptoms may include any of the above plus: 
    • loss of consciousness
    • severe headache that does not go away
    • repeated nausea and vomiting
    • loss of short term memory, such as difficulty remembering the events that led right up to and through the traumatic event
    • slurred speech
    • difficulty with walking
    • weakness in one side or area of the body
    • sweating
    • pale in color
    • seizures or convulsions
    • behavior changes including irritable
    • blood or clear fluid draining from the ears or nose
    • one pupil (dark area in the center of the eye) looks larger than the other eye
    • deep cut or laceration in the scalp
    • open wound in the head
    • foreign object penetrating the head
    • coma (a state of unconsciousness from which a person cannot be awakened; responds only minimally, if at all, to stimuli; and exhibits no voluntary activities)
    • vegetative state (a condition of brain damage in which a person has lost his thinking abilities and awareness of hiss surroundings, but retains some basic functions such as breathing and blood circulation)
    • locked-in syndrome (a neurological condition in which a person is conscious and can think and reason, but cannot speak or move)

The symptoms of a head injury may resemble other problems or medical conditions. Always consult your child's physician for diagnosis.

How are head injuries diagnosed?

The full extent of the problem may not be completely understood immediately 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 examination and diagnostic tests. During the examination, the physician 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:

  • blood tests
  • 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 cross-sectional images (often called slices), both horizontally and vertically, 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.
  • 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

Specific treatment of a head injury will be determined by your child's physician based on:

  • your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the head injury
  • type of head injury
  • your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the head injury
  • your opinion or preference

Depending on the severity of the injury, treatment may include:

  • ice
  • rest
  • topical antibiotic ointment and adhesive bandage
  • observation
  • immediate medical attention
  • stitches
  • hospitalization for observation
  • diagnostic tests
  • surgery

Treatment is individualized depending on the extent of the condition and the presence of other injuries. If your child has a head injury, he/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 physician 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.

Life-long 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 life-long medical and rehabilitative (physical, occupational, or speech therapy) management.

The extent of the child's recovery depends upon 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/her self-esteem and promote independence.