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Why you should be using HeadSmart for children with headaches


7-year-old Tom presents to the emergency department with a headache and vomiting. The headache has worsened over two weeks and wakes him up at night. His parents are worried he might have an infection.

How common are brain tumours in children?

Brain tumours make up a quarter of all childhood cancers, and sadly, more children die of brain tumours than any other childhood cancer.  The impact on children and their families is tragic.

How do brain tumours present?

Symptoms are often non-specific and may mimic many common childhood illnesses, such as viral infection. Headaches and other symptoms are linked to the size, speed of growth, and position of the tumour and worsen as the tumour progresses. Sadly, deaths occur due to delayed presentations with raised intracranial pressure.

How long does it take to get a diagnosis?

The longer it takes for a diagnosis, the worse the outcome. The median total diagnostic interval (TDI) from the start of symptoms to the confirmation of the diagnosis is 14.4 weeks in the UK, three times longer than in the US. Although the reasons for this are unclear, they may be related to disease awareness, the availability of imaging, and delayed referral times in the UK.

What is HeadSmart?

HeadSmart was created due to the prolonged TDI. The aim is to separate children whose parents can be reassured, those who need urgent review, and those who need imaging. The public awareness campaign, decision support tool, and associated guidelines are a partnership between the Children’s Brain Tumour Research Centre in Nottingham, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and the Brain Tumour Charity. HeadSmart‘s population-based approach aims to raise awareness, improve early recognition, and thus shorten the TDI for children with brain tumours.

How was HeadSmart developed?

HeadSmart was developed in a three-step process. Step one looked at all relevant studies through a systematic review and meta-analysis. The second step was a workshop incorporating the opinions of the multi-disciplinary team, the patient and their families. The final stage was a Delphi consensus process. This is a series of questionnaires with expert feedback designed to reach an agreed outcome.

The systematic review and meta-analysis included 148 papers. The reviewers used rigorous exclusion criteria to ensure studies contained sufficient data and only involved children. There were some limitations. Some used symptom clusters rather than using individual symptoms. This made pooled comparison difficult. The Delphi process allowed a structured and controlled discussion between experts, reducing bias. While there were some limitations, the large analysis and structured approach to the consultation showed the presentation patterns and facilitated the creation of consensus guidelines.

What are the red flags in children?

Parents and carers of children presenting to the Emergency Department may be reluctant to tell you they are worried about a brain tumour. It might be better to explicitly ask, “Is there anything in particular that you are worried about?” Often, they can be reassured and the patient discharged with the appropriate information, sign-posting and a safety net. If you are considering the diagnosis, this should prompt a thorough history and examination. Red flags are shown in the figure below.

Certain predisposing factors increase the risk of brain tumours and lower the threshold for referral and investigation. These include a personal or family history of brain tumours, leukaemia, sarcoma or early onset breast cancer, prior radiation to the brain, or neurocutaneous conditions such as tuberous sclerosis.

How should we investigate children with red flags?

Children needing imaging should have an MRI or contrast CT with MRI as the imaging of choice. The HeadSmart Quick Reference provides further details and guides decisions based on head circumference, growth and endocrine changes, and behavioural changes.

Specific red flags mandate imaging.

HeadSmart helps determine which patients need imaging and recommends that this be carried out within four weeks, with a report available. The need for sedation for imaging should not be a reason for delay. The decision to image as an inpatient or outpatient (within four weeks) will depend on the clinical situation and local resources.

Common pitfalls

  • Failing to reassess children with migraines or changing tension headache
  • Failing to assess vision
  • Not doing a thorough assessment if there is a change in behaviour
  • Not considering the diagnosis in children with persistent nausea and vomiting
  • Not considering diabetes insipidus in children with excessive thirst or urination
  • Thinking that vomiting is due to infection without any supporting findings
  • Thinking that abnormal balance or funny walking is because of middle ear disease when there are no supporting findings

Has HeadSmart made a difference?

A 2015 study involving 18 children’s cancer centres explored the impact of HeadSmart on the total diagnostic interval (TDI). Between 2011 and 2013, the TDI almost halved, from 14.4 weeks to 6.7 weeks post-HeadSmart.

Although this study is limited in its cross-sectional design, a randomised control trial would neither be feasible nor ethical.  The lack of more recent data is another limitation. Increasing public and professional awareness and the introduction of community and hospital champions and clinician training will likely further reduce the TDI. Further research is needed.

As clinicians, we should be using the HeadSmart tool. The public awareness campaign has struck a balance between raising awareness whilst avoiding public alarm, and the tool has utility in helping to reassure and provide a safety net for families. The tool greatly aids in helping to identify red flags and support decision-making on imaging, whilst evidence has shown a measurable change in overall TDI since the introduction of HeadSmart. We should recognise that the more people who are aware and the more the tool is used, the better the outcome for children and their families.

Take home messages

  1. Use HeadSmart’s decision support tool and guidelines
  2. Be aware of headache red flags and other symptoms of brain tumours
  3. Refer urgently when there are concerns
  4. Arrange to image appropriately
  5. Avoid the common pitfalls
  6. Provide a safety net for children being discharged and consider signposting to the online symptom checker.

Informed by the HeadSmart decision tool, a CT head with contrast is organized in the emergency department. Tom has a brain tumour. He is admitted to the ward and later starts chemotherapy.


Cancer Research UK. Childhood cancer incidence statistics. 2016. Accessed online at on 09/04/2022

HeadSmart Be Brain Tumour Aware. A new clinical guideline from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health with a national awareness campaign accelerates brain tumour diagnosis in UK children–“HeadSmart: Be Brain Tumour Aware”. Neuro Oncol. 2016;18(3):445-454. doi:10.1093/neuonc/nov187

HeadSmart Be Tumour Aware. HeadSmart Decision Support Tool. Accessed online at on 09/04/2022

HeadSmart Be Tumour Aware. HeadSmart Symptoms Diary. Accessed online at on 09/04/2022

Public Health England. Children, teenagers and young adults UK Cancer statistics report. 2021. Accessed online at on 09/04/2022

Raucci U, Della Vecchia N, Ossella C, et al. Management of Childhood Headache in the Emergency Department. Review of the Literature. Front Neurol. 2019;10:886. doi:10.3389/fneur.2019.00886

Royal College of Paediatric and Child Health. The Brain Pathways

Guideline: a guideline to assist healthcare professionals in the assessment of children who may have a brain tumour; 2017.  Accessed online at

The brain tumour charity. Sophie’s Smile. Accessed online at

The brain tumour charity. A cure can’t wait. Accessed online at

Wilne, S. et al. Presentation of childhood CNS tumours: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Oncology, 2007. 8(8): 685-695.


  • Owen Hibberd is an Emergency Medicine Trainee in Cambridge, currently studying on the QMUL PEM MSc. Interested in Paediatric Emergency Medicine, Pre-Hospital Emergency Medicine and Medical Education. He/him.



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