Similar protocols have already been adopted by some New Jersey hospitals and healthcare providers to help keep children from possible harm. For the first time, federal officials have issued clinical guidelines for healthcare providers trying to determine if a child has a concussion, recommending that CT scans not be used routinely to diagnose these conditions.

In New Jersey, a growing number of hospitals and providers have already adopted similar protocols in an attempt to accurately diagnose head injuries and protect young patients from unnecessary radiation. As a result, fewer Garden State kids including scores of student-athletes are getting unnecessary scans today.

CT scans, or computerized tomography scans, use a relatively small amount of radiation to create cross-sections of the body or brain. They have become a critical tool for assessing tissue damage in millions of children nationwide, including thousands of New Jersey youngsters each year.

But some experts are concerned that overuse of the procedure, which is 200 times the strength of a chest X-ray, could harm children subject to repeat scans, even causing cancer. According to national estimates, at least one in three CT scans is not necessary to reach a correct diagnosis.

To clarify these practices for providers nationwide and limit unnecessary exposure to radiation the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a 19-point recommendation with standardized protocols for diagnosing, assessing, managing and treating mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI), also known as concussions. Published last week in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics, the voluntary guidelines encompass 25 years of research, the CDC said.

Steps to take before CT scans

At the top of the CDC’s list: using carefully validated scales to assess mental status and other factors that can indicate a concussion, before turning to the CT scanner to diagnose the condition.

The protocol also outlines steps to assess risk factors for long-term recovery, including family history, and provide clear guidance for patients and family members on returning to daily activities.

“You can not see a concussion in a CT scan. No scan is going to see a concussion. No blood test is going to see a concussion,” said Dr. John Z. Shumko, the medical director of the RWJBarnabas program dedicated to screening and treating concussions, cardiac conditions, and sports injuries in young athletes ages five through 18.

If a provider finds signs of severe trauma, like altered consciousness or dilated pupils, Shumko said that would be a different story. “But if you do not have any of those severe symptoms, then a scan does not need to be done,” he added.