Hospital MRIs may be better at predicting long-term outcomes for people with mild traumatic brain injuries than CT scans, the standard technique for evaluating such injuries in the emergency room, according to a clinical trial led by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and the San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center (SFGH).
Published this month in the journal Annals of Neurology, the study was led by UCSF neuroradiologist Esther Yuh, MD, PhD and followed 135 people treated for mild traumatic brain injuries over the past two years at one of three urban hospitals with level-one trauma centers: SFGH, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and University Medical Center Brackenridge in Austin, Texas as part of a study called NIH-funded TRACK-TBI (Transforming Research and Clinical Knowledge in Traumatic Brain Injury). (http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT01565551).
All 135 patients with mild traumatic brain injuries received CT scans when they were first admitted, and all were given MRIs about a week later. Most of them (99) had no detectable signs of injury on a CT scan, but more than a quarter (27/99) who had a "normal" CT scans also had detectable spots on their MRI scans called "focal lesions," which are signs of microscopic bleeding in the brain.
Spotting these focal lesions helped the doctors predict whether the patients were likely to suffer persistent neurological problems. About 15 percent of people who have mild traumatic brain injuries do suffer long-term neurological consequences, but doctors currently have no definitive way of predicting whether any one patient will or not.
"This work raises questions of how we're currently managing patients via CT scan," said senior author on the study Geoff Manley, MD, PhD, the chief of neurosurgery at SFGH and vice-chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery at UCSF. "Having a normal CT scan doesn't, in fact, say you're normal," he added.
Better Precision Tools Needed for Head Injuries, Doctors Say
At least 1.7 million Americans seek medical attention every year for acute head injuries, and three quarters of them have mild traumatic brain injuries - which generally do not involve skull fractures, comas or severe bleeding in the brain but have a variety of more mild symptoms, such as temporary loss of consciousness, vomiting or amnesia.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that far more mild traumatic brain injuries may occur each year in the United States but the true number is unknown because only injuries severe enough to bring someone to an emergency room are counted.