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Health Team

Do children need CT scans?

Posted May 11, 2011 12:26 p.m. EDT

Too many children with head injuries are getting unnecessary brain scans and too much exposure to radiation, according to a new report in the Journal of Pediatrics.

Leslie Glass' then-1-year-old son, Brayden, had a computed tomography (CT) scan two years ago after he fell head-first off an exam table at the pediatrician's office.

"I flipped out," Glass said. "The doctor came in, checked him out and said he looked fine. I said, 'That's not good enough.'"

Glass pushed her doctor to give Brayden a CT scan. It confirmed that he was fine.

A new study looked at 42,000 children like Brayden who had minor blunt-force head trauma.

Researchers found that children who were observed first for symptoms needed a CT scan at a lower rate than those who had not been observed, reducing their exposure to radiation.

"We know that kids can be 10 times more sensitive to radiation, so then it becomes a risk, a small risk. Then it becomes still a very small risk but a risk of developing cancer later in life," said Dr. Christoper Giza, a pediatric neurologist at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Researchers speculated that recent headlines about traumatic brain injury in athletes and children might be making parents overly cautious, but they said serious brain injuries are uncommon.

More study is needed to determine how long a child needs to be watched before deciding whether a CT scan is needed, Giza said.

"Often a few hours is a good amount of time," he said. "Many studies have focused on a two-hour time window, some on a six-hour time window."

Despite the study, Glass said she doesn't regret getting Brayden tested.

"I'd rather have the peace of mind knowing that he was minimally exposed through a scan and know that things are OK," she said.

Giza said that it's a decision that the parents of the 7 million children who get CT scans each year need to consider carefully.