OBJECTIVE: We compared markers of protein metabolism between children who had a controlled injury and an acute traumatic event. Significant protein catabolism occurs after acute severe injury. During surgery the injury is controlled and the degree of subsequent catabolism may be blunted. METHODS: This was a prospective, unblinded observational study in 10 children 2 to 12 years old with a closed head injury (CHI) and an admission Physiologic Stability Index of ≥ 10 and in 10 children who underwent elective cardiothoracic surgery (CTS). Nutrient intake, nitrogen balance, serum albumin and prealbumin, urinary 3-methylhistidine excretion, and 3-methylhistidine to creatinine ratios were evaluated on days 1, 2, 3, 4, and 10 after injury. RESULTS: Nutrient intake was similar in both groups on study days 1-4 and did not meet estimated needs. By day 10, 7 patients in the CTS group and 2 patients in the CHI group had been discharged home. The 3 CTS patients were still in the ICU while the 8 hospitalized CHI patients had been transferred to the floor. Compared to the CTS group, nitrogen balance in the CHI group was lower on day 1. On day 10, nitrogen balance and prealbumin were greater in the CHI group than in the CTS group, consistent with recovery and increased nutrient intake. CONCLUSIONS: Markers of protein metabolism follow similar patterns after CTS or CHI in children. However, markers of protein metabolism indicate more severe catabolism soon after injury in CHI.