Public Release: 

Most physicians recognize shaken baby syndrome as a medical diagnosis

University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus

AURORA, Colo. (Aug. 16, 2016) - A University of Colorado School of Medicine researcher and colleagues have conducted the first-ever survey of physicians on the validity of "abusive head trauma" as a medical diagnosis.

While shaking a baby has been recognized as a dangerous form of child abuse since the early 1970s, the validity of "shaken baby syndrome" and "abusive head trauma" has been questioned recently in some major media reports, court decisions and medical literature. In at least one case, a U.S. Supreme Court justice has commented that there is widespread controversy within the medical community about abusive head trauma and shaken baby syndrome.

"The truth is that this is a manufactured controversy - invented by a few authors, primarily so they can be used as expert witnesses," said Daniel Lindberg, associate professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics at the School of Medicine on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. "Doctors who actually care for children are nearly unanimous in their agreement that shaking and abuse can clearly cause the findings that have been used to diagnose abusive head trauma."

Lindberg and his colleagues have conducted a survey that represents the first national, multi-disciplinary physician opinion on the validity of shaken baby syndrome and abusive head trauma and the likelihood of types of harm, such as subdural hematoma, severe retinal hemorrhages, coma and death, to result from various causes.

"Our results provide empiric data that clearly support the conclusion that shaken baby syndrome and abusive head trauma are generally accepted as valid medical diagnoses by a broad range of medical specialists," Lindberg said.

The survey, conducted between March and October 2015, was distributed 1,378 clinicians at 10 of the nation's leading children's hospitals. The most common specialties listed among respondents were emergency medicine, critical care, neurology and radiology. Among the 628 survey respondents, 607, or 96.7 percent, characterized either shaken baby syndrome or abusive head trauma as valid diagnoses. The vast majority of those who considered those a valid diagnosis said they were informed by both scientific literature and their own clinical experience.

"It is critically important to dispel the myth that there is controversy about the harm resulting from abusive head trauma and shaken baby syndrome," Lindberg said. "The life and health of children are at stake here. There should be no confusion that these diagnoses are widely recognized and accepted among a range of physicians who provide care to these children."

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Lindberg's co-authors of the study, which was published online on July 22 by the Journal of Pediatrics, are Sandeep K. Narang, MD, JD, from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and Cynthia Estrada and Sarah Greenberg from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. The study was supported by a grant from the Texas Children's Justice Act, which had no role in the study design, data collection, analysis, interpretation, manuscript production or decision of manuscript submission for publication.

About the University of Colorado School of Medicine

Faculty at the University of Colorado School of Medicine work to advance science and improve care. These faculty members include physicians, educators and scientists at University of Colorado Health, Children's Hospital Colorado, Denver Health, National Jewish Health, and the Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The school is located on the Anschutz Medical Campus, one of four campuses in the University of Colorado system. To learn more about the medical school's care, education, research and community engagement, visit its web site.

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