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Assessment of conscious level in a child with a head injury


Early recognition of a rising intercranial pressure will lead to the best chance of an early intervention and prevention of additional injury to the brain. The way we recognise changes in the conscious level is by using a formalised score.

In the initial stages, we can use something called AVPU. This is an abbreviation standing for Alert, Voice, Pain or Unresponsive.

  1. An alert individual is a child or adult who is talking to you normally and aware of their surroundings.
  2. Alternatively, the individual may respond to a voice and vocalise but may not be coherent, or perhaps not as aware of their surroudnings as you would like.
  3. Other individuals may only respond to pain. If you rub them on their sternum or prick them, they will withdraw to that pain or be upset by that pain but otherwise seem quite reduced in consciousness.
  4. Finally, somebody who is unresponsive does not react to any stimulus you give them, painful or otherwise.

In addition to this, we also use the Glasgow Coma Scale. This exists in two forms, the first is the adult Glasgow Coma Scale and the second is the modified paediatric Glasgow Coma Scale.

While these are separate, the principles are the same. The second is modified for children, whose verbal responses and responses to instructions cannot be quantified as an adult’s would be because of their developmental level. When using the adult Coma Scale, we score them as out of a maximum of 15, with the lowest possible score being 3. The three categories we think of are the eyes, the voice and the motor component of these i.e. the movement. The eyes are scored out of 4, initially people who are alert and awake have their eyes spontaneously open. Those who are less responsive will open their eyes to a voice maybe to calling their name and for this they would score a 3. Those who open their eyes only if you give them a painful stimulus would score 2 and for those who would not open their eyes at any point they would score a 1.

In this short clip we see Toby’s GCS being assessed by the paramedics inside the ambulance. Toby is only opening his eyes when spoken to and technically this would give him a GCS of 14. This goes to show the difficulty of assessing these things in children because Toby’s clear, coherent and detailed answer to the question about his age tells us that there is really no alteration in his conscious level at all. When doing a GCS assessment you should always mark the best possible response seen. Given time in the ambulance, Toby would open his eyes spontaneously, giving him a GCS of 15.

Consider the questions below and discuss with the group.

  1. What do you consider when faced with a child with a head injury?
  2. Is there anything in particular you need to be prepared for on the way to hospital?
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Emergency and Urgent Care for Children: a Survival Guide

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