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Emergency department visits for mild traumatic brain injury in early childhood.

BACKGROUND: Brain injury during early childhood may disrupt key periods of neurodevelopment. Most research regarding mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) has focused on school-age children. We sought to characterize the incidence and healthcare utilization for mTBI in young children presenting to U.S. emergency departments (ED).

METHODS: The Nationwide Emergency Department Sample was queried for children age 0-6 years with mTBI from 2016 to 2019. Patients were excluded for focal or diffuse TBI, drowning or abuse mechanism, death in the ED or hospital, Injury Severity Score > 15, neurosurgical intervention, intubation, or blood product transfusion.

RESULTS: National estimates included 1,372,291 patient visits: 63.5% were two years or younger, 57.5% were male, and 69.4% were injured in falls. The most common head injury diagnosis was "unspecified injury of head" (83%); this diagnosis decreased in frequency as age increased, in favor of a concussion diagnosis. Most patients were seen at low pediatric volume EDs (64.5%) and non-children's hospital EDs (86.2%), and 64.9% were seen at a non-teaching hospital. Over 98% were treated in the ED and discharged home. Computed tomography of the head and cervical spine were performed in 18.7% and 1.6% of patients, respectively, less often at children's hospitals (OR = 0.55, 95%CI = 0.41-0.76 for head and OR = 0.19, 95%CI = 0.11-0.34 for cervical spine). ED charges resulted in $540-681 million annually, and more than half of patients utilized Medicaid.

CONCLUSIONS: Early childhood mTBI is prevalent and results in high financial burden in the U.S. There is wide variation in diagnostic coding and computed tomography scanning amongst EDs. More focused research is needed to identify optimal diagnostic tools and management strategies.

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