A radiographic skeletal survey for the diagnosis of child abuse includes AP views of all the bones of the appendicular skeleton, AP and lateral views of the skull, lateral views of the thoracic and lumbar spine with a separate lateral view of the cervical spine, an AP view of the chest, an AP view of the abdomen, and an AP view of the pelvis, all on separate films [3
]. The entire femur should be on one film, the entire humerus on another, and so on. In some areas, a separate coned-down view centered on the joint is necessary as the joint is not necessarily viewed tangentially when the beam is centered on the midshaft of the long bone. This especially is the case at the ankle where the distal tibial physis is commonly tipped with respect to a beam centered on the midshaft of the tibia. Further coned-down views of suspicious areas may be ordered at the discretion of the interpreting radiologist. At our institution, we add bilateral oblique views of the ribs, which are invaluable for detecting frequently subtle rib fractures (Fig. ) [23
]. Every effort should be made to obtain optimal images at the initial presentation. Frequently cast material, intravenous catheters, and bandages may obscure some of the detail required in a well-performed radiographic skeletal survey.
Fig. 1A–B (A) A frontal chest radiograph of a 2-month-old infant shows a questionable area of rib expansion (arrowhead), not well seen against the background of lung markings. (B) In an oblique view of the same infant, focal rib expansion is more clearly seen, (more ...)
“Babygram” examinations include the entire body or large parts of it imaged together on one film. This causes loss of detail at the periphery of the field of view since the beam becomes highly angulated to the anatomic part in question. Furthermore, and probably more importantly, the radiographic technique needed for different body parts depends on the density of the body part in question so that the technique used to image the thorax is very different from the technique usually used on the extremities. The extremities are therefore incorrectly exposed when included on an image of the chest and abdomen. Due to these two main factors, “babygram” examinations are not considered sufficient for diagnosis [3
CT scanning is frequently necessary to evaluate for other injuries, such as intracranial and solid organ injury, and is very efficacious for confirmation of fractures that might be subtle radiographically. This is especially so with the high detail afforded by multidetector scanners. CT images should be carefully evaluated for fractures that might not be well evident by conventional radiography. The linear lucency and the periosteal reaction and callus associated with a healing fracture may be evident. In the courtroom, three-dimensional (3D) reconstructions tend to be more highly intelligible for the layman jury member and so can be highly valuable pieces of information. Aggressive use of 3D reconstructions is recommended at the time of imaging since archiving of scan data varies between institutions and high-quality reconstructions may not be possible later on.
Bone scintigraphy is also a useful adjunct. Its main contribution is its high sensitivity, which allows diagnosis of more subtle fractures that may not be radiographically evident. Fractures at the level of the physis, however, may be obscured by the normal high uptake in the region of the growth plate.
Skeletal injuries in children have been classified into injuries that have high, moderate, and low specificity for child abuse [30
]. This classification system has served well to understand and relate the multitude of skeletal injuries possible to the diagnosis of child abuse. High-specificity injuries include rib fractures, especially when those fractures are posteromedial, CMLs, and sternal, scapular, and spinous process fractures. Moderate specificity applies to the finding of multiple fractures of different ages, epiphyseal separations, vertebral body fractures and subluxations, skull fractures that ramify in multiple planes, and fractures involving the fingers. Low-specificity injuries tend to be common types of fractures that are incompatible with a given history. These include long-bone shaft, simple skull, and clavicular fractures, as well as unexplained subperiosteal new bone formation. All lesions have their highest specificity in infants (Table ).
Specificity of injuries for child abuse
Posteromedial Rib Fractures
Rib fractures in children under 3 years of age have a predictive value of 95% as an indicator of abuse [6
]. Posteromedial rib fractures have the highest specificity [30
]. While multiple rib fractures laterally can at times be caused by nonabusive trauma, such as a severe motor vehicle accident or from metabolic causes such rickets, posteromedial rib fractures can only be caused when the chest is squeezed anteriorly and posteriorly levering the posteromedial ribs over the transverse processes (Fig. ). This kind of pressure occurs when an adult grasps an infant around the chest causing compression. The mechanism has been reproduced by Kleinman and Schlesinger [35
]. In that experiment, rabbits (euthanized as a result of a separate study) were held around the chest by the hands in a fashion similar to how an infant would be grasped with the fingers on the back near the midline and thumbs on the front. Pressure on the chest and back caused multiple posteromedial rib fractures. The same did not occur when the back was laid flat against a board and the chest compressed anteriorly [35
]. This is important because it rules out posteromedial rib fractures as a result of chest compressions during cardiopulmonary resuscitation in which the child is supine and the back is supported. Due to the forces implied, the fracture always begins on the external surface of the rib rather than on its inner aspect.
Fig. 2A–B (A) An AP chest radiograph of a 3-month-old infant shows a classic posteromedial rib fracture near the midline (arrow), with other healing rib fractures seen elsewhere (arrowheads). (B) An axial CT image of the same patient shows the same posteromedial (more ...)
By conventional radiography, an acute rib fracture can be identified by a linear lucency in the bone. The lucency varies in conspicuity depending on the angle of the fracture with respect to the beam, age of the fracture, and amount of displacement. Rib fractures are usually either nondisplaced or only minimally displaced and can be very difficult to diagnose acutely. With healing, callus develops and identifies the fracture as a small segment of fusiform widening and then tapering in the contour of the rib. Initially, the linear lucency of the fracture becomes more apparent and then fades as the fracture heals. Occasionally, only subtle linear sclerosis may be present. By CT scanning, all these phases are more easily evident, as well as the important confirmatory soft tissue changes, including pulmonary contusions, pleural effusions, and extrapleural soft tissue swelling and hemorrhage. The “hole in the rib” pattern can be explained by medullary trabecular resorption about the fracture resulting in radiographically evident radiolucency surrounding a healing fracture (Fig. ) [33
An AP chest radiograph of a 1-month-old infant shows multiple right lateral rib fractures. Focal expansion and medullary lucency are present at the eighth rib fracture (arrow) typical of the “hole in the rib” appearance.
The ribs are curved structures and the rib necks posteromedially hide behind and next to the denser mediastinum. For these reasons, oblique views of the chest are very helpful in diagnosis of rib fractures [23
]. Multidetector-row CT is also a valuable adjunct, and while it is not usually performed as a part of the ordinary skeletal survey, it is frequently obtained as a part of the larger assessment of soft tissue injuries in the thorax and abdomen of abused infants. Postmortem high-detail radiographs are effective as well (Fig. ) [33
A high-detail oblique view of the ribs of a 6-month-old infant shows multiple healing posteromedial rib fractures (arrowheads). The level of detail in this image is far greater than what would be present on a standard chest radiograph.
Metaphyseal Corner Fractures
Along with the posteromedial rib fracture, the CML is the most salient form of child abuse that can be visualized by imaging. Histologically, the fracture plane dissects on the metaphyseal side along the zone of provisional calcification, tearing it off, usually incompletely [32
]. At the periphery, it usually extends slightly into the metaphysis proper due to the tight attachment of the periosteum at the level of the physis.
The CML can be difficult to see initially by plain film. Attention to proper technique is essential and has been discussed above. When viewed tangentially, the fracture may take the appearance of a corner fracture at the periphery where the fracture extends toward the metaphysis. The radiographic appearance is that of a small corner of metaphysis separated from the metaphyseal edge by thin linear radiolucency (Fig. ). However, when viewed with slight cranial or caudal angulation, the true nature of the fracture is evident. The curvilinear detached zone of provisional calcification is seen as a faint curvilinear ossific density, partially detached from the metaphysis and separated from it by thin radiolucency, taking the appearance of the classic bucket handle-type fracture. The CML and the bucket handle fracture are one and the same [32
Fig. 5 An AP radiograph of the knee of a 4-month-old infant shows a CML at the lateral aspect of the distal femoral metaphysis (arrowhead). Note periosteal reaction (curved arrow) seen more proximally and ending at the level of the physis. Also note a healing (more ...)
The fracture is highly specific for child abuse in infancy, ie, when a patient is nonambulatory, usually in the first year of life. Obstetric trauma during a difficult delivery is a known exception (Fig. ) [62
]. After the first year of life, the classic CML loses some of it specificity, as it can be the result of normal accidental trauma. The accepted mechanism causing this type of fracture is violent shaking of a young child, causing a whiplash-type injury at the level of the zone of provisional calcification [9
]. The high specificity of this type of fracture results from the fact that children who are not toddling or walking generally cannot exert this type of force by themselves to cause this type of fracture. The fracture does not result from falls, such as from a changing table, and has never been reported as a result of falls in infants in multiple studies [24
Fig. 6 An AP radiograph of the femur of a 12-day-old infant shows exuberant callus about the distal femoral bucket handle CML. This infant was a difficult footling extraction. Callus is in an advanced stage due to the young age of the patient. This amount of (more ...)
Only designated a moderate-specificity injury, the epiphyseal separation fracture requires special mention since it is often overlooked and the images are frequently misinterpreted by those who are not comfortable with pediatric imaging.
In an epiphyseal separation, the fracture occurs through the cartilaginous physis, usually with displacement of the epiphysis. Since the epiphysis is frequently not ossified or only slightly ossified, the displacement may not be apparent to the casual observer. At the shoulder where this type of injury is frequent, there may be a subtle malalignment of the metaphysis to the glenoid. Delayed images will frequently show subperiosteal hemorrhage along the humeral shaft and then the injury will be more obvious, but at times only subtle irregularity on the metaphyseal end of the physis may be present [45
At the hip, some cases of infantile coxa vara may be due to early epiphyseal separations at the proximal femoral physis [8
At the elbow, which is another site of epiphyseal separation, the fracture is commonly misinterpreted as a dislocation, but dislocations essentially do not occur in the infant elbow, the physis being a far more fragile item than the fibrous structures that reinforce the joint. In the majority of cases, the distal epiphysis moves medially and posteriorly with respect to the humeral metaphysis [50
]. The proximal radioulnar joint remains completely concordant, but a line drawn along the radial metaphysis does not intersect with the expected location of the cartilaginous capitellum. Instead, the line lies medial to its correct location and on the lateral view it lies posterior. Confirmation of the true nature of the lesion can be obtained with ultrasound or MRI (Fig. ) [50
]. The ultrasound examination is preferable since sedation is not necessary, and in the hands of an experienced sonographer, the separation of the nonossified epiphysis from the ossified metaphysis is well seen.
Fig. 7A–B (A) A lateral radiograph of the elbow of a 1-year-old child shows the capitellum (arrow) is posteriorly displaced along with the radius and ulna. The fracture plane has run through the zone of provisional calcification (arrowhead) of the distal humerus. (more ...)
Multiple Fractures and Fractures of Various Ages
The physician must bear in mind the erroneous diagnosis of abuse can be devastating for a family. Although only moderately specific for child abuse, multiple fractures and fractures in various stages of healing are an important topic, as much for the diagnosis of child abuse as for identifying what is not child abuse.
Clearly, when there are multiple fractures in an infant without a good history of trauma, a high index of suspicion is necessary. Each fracture must be evaluated closely for its type and stage of healing. The diagnosis of abuse can be made when highly specific injuries are among the injuries identified, whether soft tissue or osseous. At that point, the diagnosis of abuse becomes more secure. It is important to recognize, however, while fractures such as CMLs or posteromedial rib fractures are highly specific, low-specificity long-bone fractures are very common.
In general, the usual time course of fracture healing is as follows: 4 to 10 days for resolution of soft tissue swelling; 10 to 14 days for subperiosteal new bone formation; 14 to 21 days for immature or soft callus; loss of fracture line definition at roughly 14 to 21 days; and greater than 21 days for mature or hard callus. In infants, the process is markedly accelerated [51
]. Newborns may show callus within 4 days [10
], as evidenced by early callus in clavicular fractures sustained during delivery.
Location plays an important role. Intraarticular fractures do not show callus at the fracture site since there is no periosteum present [13
]. The periosteum at the level of the joint capsule merges with and runs with the joint capsule rather than on the joint surface [12
]. This makes sense since, at the joint level, articular cartilage is apposed to articular cartilage on the adjacent joint margin without intervening periosteum. Without the osteogenic inner layer of periosteum, callus does not occur per se. Instead, periosteal elevation and reaction can be seen more proximally in the bone away from the joint [45
]. The distal humerus is a good example. A lateral condylar corner fracture will not manifest periosteal reaction at the fracture site. Instead, subperiosteal new bone formation is usually present in the diaphysis and metaphysis but ending at the capsular origin (Fig. ).
An AP radiograph of the elbow of a 2-year-old child shows a healing supracondylar fracture (not well seen). Note how the periosteal reaction (arrowheads) ends at the capsular origin (arrow).
Variability in the extent of callus is also related to motion at the fracture site so that, in a fracture that is immediately immobilized, callus will be minimal unless the periosteum is stripped off the osseous cortical surface. Trauma in abused children tends to be repetitive without the victim coming immediately to medical attention and treatment. Callus in these cases tends to be abundant [10
The bony mineralization should be evaluated. Callus may be markedly delayed in osteopenic patients [43
] due to poor nutrition or other deficiencies of vitamin D or calcium.
Long-bone fractures are low-specificity lesions for child abuse. The low specificity belies their true importance as they are common in abused children. Estimated frequency varies in the medical literature. Estimates for femur fractures in children younger than 1 year due to abuse range in the medical literature from 39% to 93% [55
], although a recent report gives the incidence as only 11% in a Canadian population [26
Spiral fractures have come under particularly intense scrutiny as being pathognomonic for abuse, but such is not the case. Spiral fractures and transverse fractures are equally common in abused children [57
Dalton et al. [11
] stressed the suspicious nature of femoral fractures in children younger than 3 years and emphasized the need for thorough followup investigation. In their patient population of 138 children with femoral fractures, the initial cause was abuse in only 10% of the children. After a more thorough investigation, the percentage of cases due to abuse increased to 31%. When femoral fractures sustained from a clear accidental traumatic episode or underlying medical condition were omitted, the percentage increased to 44%. Interestingly, 68 of the 138 patients (67%) were admitted to the orthopaedic service, of which 14 cases were confirmed as abuse later in the hospitalization. An additional six cases were later identified as abuse in the Child Abuse Registry [11
]. Clearly, the orthopaedic surgeon should have a high suspicion of abuse when treating an infant with a femoral fracture and the surgeon should remain alert throughout the hospitalization and even thereafter.
Knowledge of the normal configuration of the bone about the metaphyses in young children is necessary for proper interpretation. The metaphysis flares smoothly as it widens to meet the physis. Immediately adjacent to and proximal to the physis, a straightened ridge of bone is present, which measures about 1 to 2 mm in length (Fig. ). This corresponds to a subperiosteal bone collar or bone bark (ring of Lacroix) that encircles the primary spongiosa and to a variable extent the physis [58
]. At its epiphyseal end is the groove of Ranvier, which is responsible for ossification of the bone bark and contributes to the funnelization mechanism that allows for widening of the metaphysis to meet the width of the epiphysis [58
]. This specific morphology produces an abrupt vertical interruption to the normal slope of the metaphysis as it enlarges to conform to the epiphysis at the end of long bones. The collar can be well seen usually at the distal radial metaphyses. As the collar extends around the unossified physis, a small spur may result and cause confusion [31
]. A spur should produce no periosteal reaction and no linear lucency extending into the physis beneath the zone of provisional calcification (Fig. ). Oblique coned views may be very helpful.
An AP radiograph of the wrist of a 2-year-old boy shows a focal straightened metaphyseal collar that interrupts the smooth flaring of the metaphysis (arrows).
Fig. 10A–B (A) An AP radiograph of the knee of a 3-month-old infant shows a normal metaphyseal spur with the metaphyseal collar extending along the physis (arrowhead). Note the spur is not being undercut by linear lucency and it continues smoothly onto the metaphyses. (more ...)
At the medial metaphysis of the distal femur, focal cortical irregularity is common, frequently with a small excrescence at the medial aspect of the distal femoral metaphysis. A lateral view can show it has a peculiar triangular appearance [34
] and sometimes fragmented appearance. The same finding can be observed at the medial proximal tibial metaphysis. It could be related to the normally bowlegged varus of toddler’s legs and asymmetric weightbearing or stress (Fig. ).
A lateral view of the knee of a 15-month-old child shows the triangular-shaped fragmented appearance of the posterior aspect of the femur (arrow).
The medial proximal tibial and humeral metaphyses are sites of highly active bone turnover. At these “cutaway” zones, the metaphysis flares dramatically to meet the epiphysis and an active dynamic process of bone resorption and formation is responsible for this bone modeling to occur [38
]. The pronounced concavity at the cutaway zone can have the appearance of a small beak where the metaphysis meets the subperiosteal collar [31
] (Fig. ).
A magnified frontal view of the proximal humerus of a 1-month-old infant shows the concave medial surface of the proximal humerus ends in a small beak. A normal notch is seen along the surface (arrow) and is a normal finding at this cutaway zone.
It is frequently most helpful to obtain followup radiographs. In most cases, the fracture line becomes more evident with periosteal reaction. Care is again mandated since, especially in cases where the extremity was quickly immobilized during treatment, the degree of callus may be minimal. Furthermore, in areas where the fracture is intraarticular, subperiosteal reaction will not be present [13
Subperiosteal new bone formation is physiologic and normal in infants 1 to 5 months old. It is smooth and most commonly is seen along the diaphysis of the humerus, femur, and tibia. It is usually but not exclusively bilateral and is related to the rapid growth of infants.
Although physiologic subperiosteal new bone formation occurs up to 5 months old, a progression is usually observed in its appearance. Immature subperiosteal new bone is a thin hazy area of increased density separated from the cortex by a thin lucency. This type predominates in younger infants 1 to 4 months old. Subperiosteal new bone formation at 4 to 5 months is actively being incorporated into the bone and, similar to normal fracture callus, will progressively calcify and fill in, and it is this appearance that predominates later on. When subperiosteal new bone formation is seen, it should be closely examined for focality and bilaterality, as well as its appearance relative to the patient’s age. Physiologic subperiosteal new bone formation should not be greater than 2 mm in thickness [37
Skull fractures can be difficult. Differentiation of fractures from vascular grooves and accessory sutures can be confusing. In these cases, a CT scan of the head with 3D reconstructions is invaluable, as the path of the vascular groove as a tubular lucency running obliquely through the skull or on the surface of the skull is obvious and decisive (Fig. ). A short linear lucency running through the parietal bone and ending on a suture is frequently an accessory suture, especially if bilateral. Interdigitation across a linear lucency that ends at a suture, especially when short, is very good evidence that the lucency is indeed a normal accessory suture.
Fig. 13A–B (A) A lateral radiograph of the skull of a 3-month-old infant shows a thin linear lucency (arrowhead) at the posterior parietal bone. (B) A 3D reconstruction of the skull in the same patient identifies the linear lucency as a vascular groove along the (more ...)