Spinal Cord Injury

Some babies sustain damage to the spinal cord during a complicated birth. Like any birth injury, a spinal cord injury is terrifying for parents and can cause lasting medical problems for the baby.

Spinal Cord Injury Explained

A spinal cord injury disrupts the connection of nerves between the brain and the rest of the body. This damage is caused by trauma to a specific area of the spinal cord. It ranges in severity from mild bruising to complete tears. Approximately 17,500 people experience a spinal cord injury each year. Fortunately, only 5% of these affect children.

A spinal cord birth injury can occur when doctors strain a child’s neck by pulling, twisting or using tools to remove the baby from the birth canal. Undiagnosed damage to the spine before birth can also result in a spinal cord injury during delivery.

Babies who sustain a spinal cord injury will show symptoms of paralysis or weakness. If your baby is diagnosed with this injury, they may require a combination of medication and surgery to manage their injury. After this, your child will be guided through ongoing rehabilitation by a health care team.

What Is a Spinal Cord Injury?

The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves responsible for carrying messages between the brain and the rest of the body. Damage to the spinal cord interferes with this connection. This results in temporary or permanent changes to muscle function and sensation.

Spinal cord injuries affecting the neck are known as cervical injuries. They can result in quadriplegia, or a total loss of control over all four limbs and the torso. Damage near the very top of the spinal cord can be fatal. Lower damage may only affect the child’s legs.

A spinal cord injury can occur at any location along the spine, but 60% to 70% of cases affect the neck.

Although there is no cure, promising advancements in spinal cord injury treatment can help patients cope.

Complete Spinal Cord Injury

Less than 30% of spinal cord injuries are complete. A complete spinal cord injury occurs when the spinal cord is fully severed or compressed, resulting in the loss of all movement and sensation below damaged area. There is still a potential for some level of recovery.

Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury

An incomplete spinal cord injury occurs when the spinal cord is damaged but still able to transmit signals below the site of injury. Incomplete spinal cord injuries allow the patient to maintain some sensation and movement. They may even enjoy a full recovery in mild cases.

What Causes Spinal Cord Injury?

A spinal cord injury sustained during birth is often the result of medical malpractice. Doctors may need to speed up a complicated delivery if the umbilical cord is compressed and the baby is unable to breathe. Improperly pulling and twisting the baby during this rushed delivery can cause permanent nerve damage.

Using vacuums and forceps to rotate or pull a baby from the birth canal can also cause spinal cord damage. When misused, these tools can severely stretch nerves in the neck and back. Tool misuse can also result in skull fractures. These cause internal bleeding in the brain and pressure on the spinal cord.

Finally, doctors may fail to diagnose spina bifida during pregnancy. A traditional delivery can be dangerous for a baby with spina bifida because the condition causes gaps between the vertebrae that protect the spinal cord. These gaps leave the spinal cord exposed to potential injury.

Spinal Cord Injury Risk Factors

Many factors can increase a baby’s risk of obtaining a spinal cord injury during birth, including:

  • The baby is in a breech presentation
  • The baby weighs more than eight pounds
  • The baby’s head is hyperextended (bent backward) in the womb
  • The baby has spina bifida
  • There is a risk of bleeding in the brain from a maternal infection or preeclampsia

Spinal Cord Injury Signs and Symptoms

Most signs of a spinal cord injury will be visible immediately. In 25% of cases, it can take 30 minutes to 4 days for symptoms to fully appear.

Parents can identify a spinal cord injury by monitoring their baby for these signs:

  • Loss of muscle function in some or all of the limbs
  • Baby seems floppy when picked up
  • Loss of sensation in the body or lack of reflexes
  • Breathing problems
  • Spasms
  • Loss of bowel and bladder function

If your baby is floppy, stiff or spasming—signs of cerebral palsy—your doctor will run tests to rule out cerebral palsy. This will help them make the proper diagnosis and prevent a cerebral palsy misdiagnosis.

The signs of cerebral palsy are similar to those of a spinal cord injury. The most significant difference between the two is that a spinal cord injury often presents immediately, while mild to moderate cerebral palsy can go undetected for months.

Diagnosing Spinal Cord Injury

Sometimes a spinal cord injury, such as spina bifida, is diagnosed before birth. A routine prenatal blood test should reveal spina bifida so that doctors can be prepared to prevent permanent spinal cord damage during childbirth.

If your child shows symptoms of a spinal cord injury after birth, your doctor will give them a physical exam and run various tests before making a diagnosis.

X-Rays

X-rays can help doctors determine if any vertebrae are fractured, indicating spinal cord injury in the area. Small fractures may not be visible under X-rays even if the spinal cord is damaged.

CT Scans

CT scans produce a more detailed image of the body than X-rays, revealing a clearer picture of any problems with vertebrae. Like X-rays, CT scans cannot directly detect issues with nerves.

MRIs

An MRI is the best way to diagnose a spinal cord injury. MRIs can reveal nerve compression, tumors on the spine and lesions in the spinal cord.

Spinal Cord Injury Treatment

The primary treatment for spinal cord injuries is prevention. If your child is at risk of a spinal cord injury, your medical team should take special precautions during labor. This often means scheduling a cesarean section if the baby is too big, positioned incorrectly or has spina bifida.

A spinal cord injury requires immediate medical attention to reduce the risk of further damage. Doctors administer medication, such as corticosteroids, to decrease swelling and stabilize the injury. They may recommend surgery to examine the damage or release pressure on injured nerves. Depending on the severity, treatment may include a breathing machine, a feeding tube and a bladder catheter.

Since there is no cure for spinal cord injury, the goal with treatment is to rehabilitate the patient through therapy. In most cases, treatment requires a life-long commitment by the patient and their family.

Treatment for spinal cord injury involves a team of medical professionals and therapists who work with your child as they develop. The aim with therapy is to give your child their best shot at independence and help them enjoy a high quality of life.

Spinal cord injury treatment has several goals, including:

  • Controlling spastic muscles
  • Preventing muscles from wasting
  • Helping children use other muscles for mobility
  • Preventing complications such as pressure ulcers and pneumonia

Spinal Cord Injury Prognosis

A birth-related spinal cord injury is a traumatizing event for any family. Children with particularly severe spinal cord injuries may require a high level of personal care throughout their lives. On the other hand, milder cases can heal entirely with the help of treatment. In general, children with damage lower down on the spine will enjoy greater independence than those with a cervical spine injury.

Regardless of the severity of their injury, proper care can help babies learn how to adapt to their limitations so they can still live happy lives. Recent medical advancements have allowed many people with spinal cord injuries to regain at least some movement and sensation in their body.

Financial Compensation for Spinal Cord Injury

Learning that your newborn child has a spinal cord injury is heartbreaking. On top of that, the ongoing medical treatment and personal support they require can quickly get expensive. Fortunately, financial compensation may be available to you if your child’s spinal cord injury occurred during delivery or was left untreated by medical professionals.

If you are considering legal action, work with an attorney who has experience with birth injury cases. Contact the Birth Injury Justice Center today at 800-914-1562 to get a free medical case review.

Author:Birth Injury Justice Center
Birth Injury Justice Center

The Birth Injury Justice Center was founded in 2003 by a team of legal professionals to educate and empower victims and families affected by birth injuries. Our team is devoted to providing you with the best resources and legal information for all types of birth injuries.

Last modified: January 8, 2019

View 5 References
  1. “Acute Spinal Cord Injury in Children” Stanford Children’s Health. Retrieved from https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=acute-spinal-cord-injury-in-children-90-P02590. Accessed on December 18, 2018.

  2. “Spinal Cord Injury” Boston Children’s Hospital. Retrieved from http://www.childrenshospital.org/conditions-and-treatments/conditions/s/spinal-cord-injury. Accessed on December 18, 2018.

  3. “Spinal Cord Injury Facts and Figures at a Glance” National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. Retrieved from https://www.nscisc.uab.edu/Public/Facts%20and%20Figures%20-%202017.pdf. Accessed on December 18, 2018.

  4. “Spinal Cord Injury in Children” Merck Manual. Retrieved from https://www.merckmanuals.com/en-ca/home/injuries-and-poisoning/spinal-injuries/spinal-cord-injury-in-children. Accessed on December 18, 2018.

  5. “Acute Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) in Children” University of Rochester Medical Center. Retrieved from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=90&ContentID=P02590. Accessed on December 18, 2018.