Pediatric Traumatic Brain Injury


Medical Management Considerations


Resources for Families

Advisory Committee

Publication Information


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Pediatric traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an injury to the brain caused by trauma resulting in a change in level of consciousness and/or anatomical abnormality of the brain. This injury may result in neurocognitive, intellectual, academic, functional and motor function deficits that may be either permanent or temporary impairments. Primary injury to the brain is the result of the transmission of accelerating and decelerating forces to the brain, which may cause stretching and breaking of the bridging vessels and axons. Secondary injury occurs when reduced cerebral perfusion fails to deliver adequate oxygen and clear waste or when hypoxic injury accompanies or follows direct trauma. Further damage after initial brain injury may occur in children under six years of age who may have an unusual autonomic response resulting in an increase in intracranial pressure.

Brain injury can be caused by impact or inertial forces, and many injuries involve both components. Common causes of pediatric brain injury include motor vehicle accidents, falls, pedestrian and bicycle motor vehicle accidents, shaken baby syndrome, and blows to the head, which may result in different types of brain injuries. Impact forces, caused by the brain being struck by a moving object or by striking a surface can produce scalp and skull injuries, brain contusions, and epidural and subdural hematomas and intercranial lacerations which may have results ranging from no neurological consequences to significant disabilities or even death. Inertial forces occurring by violent motion of the brain inside the skull may result in mild concussions to acute subdural hematomas and diffuse axonal injuries (DAI).


The prevalence of disability from traumatic brain injury is about 29,000 children and youth each year, where 10 percent of mild injuries, 90 percent of moderate injuries and 100 percent of severe injuries result in disabilities each year.

Outcomes – There is significant variability in recovery time.

Motor Impairment

  • Weakness
  • Spasticity
  • Rigidity
  • Ataxia, including intention tremor (related to brain stem injury)
  • Dystonia (usually related to basal ganglia injury)
  • Motor apraxia
  • Development of progressive contractures rapidly in the weeks post-injury
  • Oculomotor impairments – when accompanied by orbital fractures, immediate consult is needed; children under 5 years of age with disconjugate gaze should be evaluated by a pediatric ophthalmologist as soon as possible following the injury
  • Dysphagia

Sensory Impairments and Cranial Nerve Dysfunction

  • Visual impairments
  • Anosmia
  • Hearing loss
  • Vertigo or lightheadedness

Speech- Language Impairments

  • Aphasia – disorder that results from damage to portions of the brain that are responsible for language
  • Apraxia – inability to execute a voluntary movement despite being able to demonstrate normal muscle function.
  • Aprosodia – the absence of normal variations of pitch, rhythm and stress in speech
  • Dysarthria – difficult, poorly articulated speech
  • Spastic dysphonia – impairment of the voice
  • Central auditory processing difficulties

Cognitive Impairments

  • Memory (including difficulty with encoding, decoding, and visual and auditory memory problems)
  • Integrative language function (including verbal reasoning, problem solving, concept formation and concept flexibility)
  • Attention span
  • Attention to visual or auditory detail
  • Executive functions (including mental flexibility, abstract thinking, organizational skills, judgment, a multi-tasking ability

Behavioral Problems

  • Reactive emotional problems (including anger, depression and acting-out behavior)
  • Sleep-wake cycle disturbances, common in acute phase
  • Eating disorders, common in acute and postacute phases (including anorexia nervosa, bulimia and hyperphagia)

Other Possible Injuries/Problems in Acute Phase

  • Secondary bleeding leading to subarachnoid, intraventricular or intracerebral hemorrhage
  • Bladder and bowel incontinence
  • Occult fractures
  • Intraabdominal injury
  • Nutritional disorders
  • Endocrine disorders
  • Pain
  • Seizure activity, common within the first few days postinjury, with degree dependent on severity of injury and time since the injury

Other Possible Injuries/Problems in Postacute Phase

  • Delayed bleeding, resulting in epidural or subdural hematomas
  • Edema, resulting in hypoperfusion injuries or herniation syndromes
  • Hydrocephalus
  • Metabolic events (increased excitatory amino acid and neurotransmitter release, increased lipid peroxidation), resulting in delayed nerve cell injury or death or increased susceptibility to other secondary injury
  • Nutritional disorders
  • Endocrine disorders
  • Seizure disorders

Common Associations

Approximately 20 percent of children with traumatic brain injury have preexisting attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which negatively affects outcomes. Chances of developing a full-blown psychiatric illness, including schizophrenia, paranoia and bipolar disorders, are higher in children with mild, moderate and severe traumatic brain injury than in the general population. According to reports, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs in between 17 and 33 percent of individuals after mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI). Findings show that postconcussive symptoms (PCS) are strongly correlated with PTSD symptoms. Personality change (PC) is frequently diagnosed following severe TBI in children, but is much less common following mild or moderate TBI.


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Note: These considerations are in addition to the normal medical care provided to an individual without traumatic brain injury. Children and adolescents with traumatic brain injury are best cared for by a child development team working with parents and the primary care physician. This team regularly includes a developmental pediatrician or a pediatric psychiatrist, a medical social worker, a neurosurgeon, a nurse, an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, a psychologist and a speech-language pathologist. Other appropriate referrals include an orthotist, an orthopedist, a child neurologist, an ophthalmologist, a nutritionist and a feeding specialist.

Traumatic brain injury can be measured by the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS, most often applied in the first few hours of acute injury rather than for chronic evaluation) using the modifications for infants and children, and is classified as follows:

  • Mild: GCS score of 13-15
  • Moderate: GCS score of 9-12
  • Severe: GCS score of 8 or less

Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS)

Glasgow Scale pdf

Due to its unreliability in children under age 4, assessment for posttraumatic amnesia (PTA) is rarely used as a classification tool for this age level. PTA can be assessed in older children using the Children’s Orientation and Amnesia Test (COAT) or the Galveston Orientation and Amnesia Test (GOAT). Severity of TBI is determined as follows:

  • Mild TBI: PTA less than 30 minutes
  • Moderate TBI: PTA from 30 minutes to 24 hours
  • Severe TBI: PTA longer than 24 hours

Management by Age

Pre-school Age (Birth to 5 years)

  • Evaluate growth parameters, diet record, nutrition and feeding, gastroesophageal reflux, and swallowing
  • Review oral hygiene and refer to dentist
  • Test vision and refer to ophthalmologist as needed
  • Test hearing and refer to audiologist as needed
  • Evaluate dizziness and vertigo and refer to otolaryngologist as needed
  • Perform EEG and refer to child neurologist as needed
  • Take chest x-ray when suspicious of pneumonia or aspiration as needed
  • Evaluate oral-motor skills (drooling) and refer for therapy as needed
  • Refer to speech-language pathologist as needed
  • Perform detailed musculoskeletal and neuromotor examinations
  • Assess fine motor skills
  • Screen visual perceptual skills
  • Administer behavior rating scales to parents and teachers as needed and regularly if on medication
  • Refer to mental health professional as needed
  • Encourage parent training in behavior management
  • Refer child for developmental screening and surveillance
  • Set up school conferences as needed

Childhood (6 to 12 years)

  • Refer for behavior, intellectual and achievement testing and neuropsychological assessment as needed
  • Reassess need for physical or occupational therapy services: perform complete neuromotor examination, assessing fine and gross motor skills and functional skills
  • Refer to community resources and mentor program
  • Coordinate teacher interviews and school conferences as needed

Adolescent and Young Adult (13-21 years)

  • Administer behavior rating scales to parents, child and teacher as needed, regularly if on medication
  • Refer for counseling as needed
  • Review medication management: check growth, blood pressure, heart rate, tics, side effects, EKG, and perform lab work as needed for specific medications
  • Consider inpatient rehabilitation evaluation as needed
  • Encourage independent living skills program and social skills training as needed
  • Perform driver training assessment
  • Refer sexually active women for gynecologic examination
  • Coordinate teacher interviews and school conferences as needed
  • Refer to State Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, career counseling or life skills program as needed
  • Encourage involvement in after-school and community activities and mentor programs


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Peer Reviewed Journal Articles/Academies

Annegers, J.F. et al. (1998). A Population-Based Study of Seizures after Traumatic Brain Injuries. The New England Journal of Medicine, 338(1), 20-24.

Bryant, R.A, & Harvey, A.G. (1999). Postconcussive Symptoms and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder after Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 187(5), 302-305.

Max, J.E., et al. (1998). Child and adolescent traumatic brain injury: correlates of injury severity. Brain Injury, 12(1), 31-40.

Max, J.E., et al. (2000). Personality change disorder in children and adolescents following traumatic brain injury. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 6(3), 279-89.

Special Interest Groups/Other Publications

Christensen, J.R. (1996). Pediatric Traumatic Brain Injury. In A.J. Capute & P.J. Accardo (2nd ed.), Developmental Disabilities in Infancy and Childhood (pp. 245- 260). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Cockrell, J.L. & Nickel, R.E., (2000). Traumatic Brain Injury. In R.E. Nickel & L. W. Desch (Eds), The Physician’s Guide to Caring for Children with Disabilities and Chronic Conditions (pp. 513-544). Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.

Graber, M.A. (1999). Traumatic Brain Injury. In: Griffith’s 5 Minute Clinical Consult. Ed: M.R. Dambro. Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Michaud, L. et al. (1997). Traumatic Brain Injury. In: Children with Disabilities. Ed: M.L. Batshaw, (4th ed., 595-617). Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.

National Institutes of Health, Office of the Director. (1998). October 26-28. Rehabilitation of Persons with Traumatic Brain Injury: NIH Consensus Statement Online, 16 (1), 1-41. Retrieved from on February 24, 2006


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Brain Injury Association, Inc.

105 North Alfred Street

Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Telephone: 703-236-6000

Fax: 703-236-6001

National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR)

Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

U.S. Department of Education

400 Maryland Avenue SW

Washington, D.C. 20202

Telephone: 800-USA-LEARN (872-53276)

The Brain Injury Information Network

e-mail: [email protected]

National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC)

1010 Wayne Avenue, Suite 800

Silver Spring, Maryland 20910

Telephone: 800-346-2742

Fax: 301-562-2401


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Theodore A. Kastner, M.D., M.S.

Felice Weber Parisi, M.D., M.P.H.

Richard J. Brouette, M.D., F.A.A.F.P., D.A.B.F.P.

Leonard Magnani, M.D., Ph. D.

Terrance D. Wardinsky, M.D.


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Funded by a grant from the California Department of Developmental Services

For more information, contact:

Center for Health Improvement

1330 21st Street, Suite 100

Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 901-9645

This document does not provide advice regarding medical diagnosis or treatment for any individual case, and any opinions or statements contained in this document are not intended to serve as a standard of medical care. Physicians are encouraged to view the considerations presented in this document in light of evolving scientific information. This document is not intended for use by the layperson. Reproduction of this document may be done with proper credit given to California Department of Developmental Services and the Center for Health Improvement.