Inflicted pediatric head trauma – forensic pathology
December 20, 2010 2 Comments
Blog Post by Peter M. Cummings, MD is Medical Examiner and Director of Forensic Neuropathology, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Boston, MA, USA.
There are few areas within forensic pathology that generate more debate and controversy than the subject of inflicted pediatric head trauma. Often in these cases, the reporting history is scant and typically the baby is stated to have been ‘ just found unresponsive’ or experienced an ‘unwitnessed accident’. In lieu of this lack of information, a set of diagnostic criteria were decided upon to make the diagnosis of inflicted head trauma more straightforward. Traditionally these criteria included: 1) subdural hematoma; 2) cerebral edema; and 3) retinal hemorrhages.
A dogma was established that if a child had all three signs, the child was abused. As time progressed and more scientific studies were published this belief came under fire and it is now accepted that not every subdural hemorrhage is abusive and that not every swollen brain was the result of inflicted trauma. That left retinal hemorrhages, and physicians began to place great importance in the discovery of such lesions.
More recently the dogma has been if a child has subdural hemorrhage, cerebral edema AND retinal hemorrhages, then the injuries were inflicted. The presence of retinal hemorrhages became the preverbal ‘last straw’ in such that if you had the former two injuries but still couldn’t decide if the injuries were accidental of inflicted, the presence of the latter could sway you, and you could call the case inflicted head trauma.
I was reared in the generation of pathologists who believed this hypothesis to be true, and therefore so did I. During my years of working in forensic pathology I have come across a number of cases where a child has had subdural hemorrhage, cerebral edema and retinal hemorrhages in the absence of trauma. The histories were excellent and there was no evidence for abuse. I had to rethink my entire belief system. Photograph 1A depicts pre-retinal (arrowhead), intra-retinal (arrow), and post-retinal (asterisk) hemorrhages that were multifocal within the retina in a child who died following febrile seizures. Furthermore, these lesions were also located at the periphery and at the optic disc, locations that were thought to be classic for abusive head injury. Photograph 1B shows multiple retinal hemorrhages (arrows) at the optic disc, the optic nerve is identified with an asterisk.
Now if you search the literature you will find many case reports describing non-traumatic retinal hemorrhages in children. What once was truth became a little foggy for me!
Enter retinal folds. Focused now shifted to the presence of these tiny creases within the retina, called retina folds. Usually described clinically, they are difficult to see under the microscope because of artifacts introduced by cutting the eye. These little lesions became somewhat of a holy grail, if they were seen in the setting of the other criteria needed to diagnose inflicted head injury, then the case was abuse, no question. There are some physicians who will diagnose abuse with retinal folds alone, in the absence of subdural hemorrhage.
With focus now shifted to the presence or absence of retinal folds, a few case reports were published that demonstrated such findings in non-inflicted head trauma. The debate raged on and the argument became that yes, you can have non-abusive retinal
folds, however, you have to have a story of severe trauma. Case reports describing non-abusive retinal folds included car accidents, a 40-pound television falling on a child’s head and an adult falling on a child’s head.
After finally feeling as though I had come to a common ground within myself regarding the diagnosis of inflicted head injury, I had a case where a young child died following a non-traumatic hemorrhage within the basal ganglia. Examination of the eyes
demonstrated multifocal pre-retinal, intra-retinal, and post-retinal hemorrhages AND retinal folds (photograph 4). I didn’t know what to think, retinal folds in the absence of any history of trauma? Yes.
This led me to think hard and examine the literature further. I now think that retinal hemorrhages and folds are likely the result of sudden and severe increases in intercerebral pressure.
I am sure there are people who would disagree with me. All I can say is take every case on it’s own merits and don’t go into the autopsy with the bias of having already made the diagnosis of abuse on just the findings described above. There is no lesion that is pathognomonic for inflicted pediatric head injury. One must have a high index of suspicion, but keep an open mind. The autopsy is just a single piece of information; the results must be interpreted in the context of all other available data, including
birth records, pediatric records, police reports and scene investigations.With our text Atlas of Forensic Histopathology, we set out to answer some common questions asked by the pathologist while sitting at the microscope. We hope that it will become a book that spends most of its life beside the microscope assisting the student, resident or pathologist in making the correct diagnosis. It is a snapshot of our collective experiences and reflects the day-to-day things that are seen in a busy forensic practice. Atlas of Forensic Histopathology is the first full-color modern histology text for physicians practicing forensic medicine.
For further reading, see Atlas of Forensic Histopathology, edited by Peter M. Cummings, Darin P. Trelka, and Kimberley M. Springer, published by Cambridge University Press