Acute Spinal Cord Injury in Children
What is an acute spinal cord injury?
The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that carries messages between the brain and
the rest of the body. It relays data from the brain to the rest of the body and carries
sensory information from the body, including the skin, joints, and organs, back to
Acute spinal cord injury (SCI) is due to a traumatic injury that either results in
a bruise (also called a contusion), a partial tear, or a complete tear (called a transection)
in the spinal cord. SCI is a common cause of permanent disability and death in children.
What causes an acute spinal cord injury?
There are many causes of SCI in children. The more common injuries occur when the
area of the spine or neck is bent or compressed as in the following:
Birth injuries, which typically affect the spinal cord in the neck area
Motor vehicle accidents (automobiles, motorcycles, and being struck as a pedestrian)
Violence (gunshot or stab wounds)
Infections that form an abscess on the spinal cord
What are the symptoms of an acute spinal cord injury?
After a traumatic event, a person may have varying degrees of symptoms associated
with the severity and location of the SCI. The location of the injury on the spinal
cord will determine how severe the injury will be. For example, an injury that damages
the cervical spine (in the neck area) can cause loss of muscle function or strength
in all four extremities (arms and legs) as well as loss of sensation below the level
of the spinal cord injury. This is referred to as tetraplegia (formerly called quadriplegia)
with sensory loss. An injury in the upper spinal cord often results in the need for
mechanical breathing assistance, as with a ventilator, as the chest muscles may also
be weakened. An injury to a lower part of the spinal cord that causes paralysis and
loss of function in the legs, as well as sensory loss involving the lower body is
The extent of the damage to the spinal cord determines whether the injury is complete
or incomplete. A complete injury means that there is no movement or feeling below
the level of the injury. An incomplete injury means that there is still some degree
of feeling or movement below the level of the injury.
Initially after a spinal cord injury, the patient may experience spinal shock, which
causes loss or decrease in feeling, muscle movement, and reflexes. As swelling subsides,
other symptoms may appear depending on the location of the injury. Generally, the
higher up the level of the injury is to the spinal cord, the more severe the symptoms.
For example, an injury to the neck, at C1 or C2 (the first and second vertebrae in
the spinal column), and especially in the mid-cervical vertebrae of C3, C4, and C5,
affects the respiratory muscles and the ability to breathe. A lower injury, in the
lumbar vertebrae, may affect nerve and muscle control to the bladder, bowel, sexual
organs, and legs.
The symptoms of SCI may include:
Loss of voluntary muscle movement in the chest, arms, or legs
Loss of feeling in the chest, arms, legs, or buttocks
Loss of bowel and bladder function
Abnormal autonomic regulation (poor blood pressure control, sweating, shivering, abnormal
function of the stomach and intestines)
The symptoms of SCI may resemble other medical conditions. Always consult your child's
doctor for a diagnosis.
How are acute spinal cord injuries diagnosed?
The full extent of the SCI may not be completely understood immediately after the
injury, but may be revealed with a comprehensive medical evaluation and diagnostic
testing. Acute SCI is a medical emergency. Anytime there is a suspicion of injury
to the spinal cord, emergent medical attention is absolutely necessary. The diagnosis
of SCI is made with a physical examination and diagnostic tests. During the examination,
the doctor obtains a complete medical history of the child and family and inquires
as to how the injury occurred. Trauma to the spinal cord can cause neurological problems
and requires further medical follow-up. Occasionally, surgery is necessary to stabilize
the spinal cord after acute SCI.
Diagnostic tests may include:
X-ray. A diagnostic test that uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images
of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.
Computed tomography scan (also called a CT or CAT scan). A diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology
to produce horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan
shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat,
and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies,
and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.
Treatment of an acute spinal cord injury
Specific treatment for an acute spinal cord injury will be determined by your child's
doctor based on:
Your child's age, overall health, and medical history
The extent of the SCI
The type of SCI
Your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
Expectations for the course of the SCI
Your opinion or preference
SCI requires emergency medical attention on the scene of the accident or injury. This
is accomplished by immobilizing the head and neck areas to prevent the child from
moving. This may be very difficult since the child, parents, or bystanders may be
very frightened after the traumatic incident.
There is no cure to repair a damaged or bruised spinal cord. The severity of the SCI
and the location determines if the SCI is mild, severe, or fatal.
Surgery is sometimes necessary to evaluate the injured cord, stabilize fractured back
bones, decompress (or release) the pressure from the injured area, and to manage any
other injuries that may have been a result of the accident. Treatment is individualized
depending on the extent of the condition and the presence of other injuries in the
Treatment may include:
Observation and medical management in the intensive care unit
Medications, such as corticosteroids (which may help decrease the swelling in the spinal cord)
Mechanical ventilator. A breathing machine used to help the child breathe.
Bladder catheter. A tube that is placed into the bladder that helps to drain the urine into a collection
Feeding tube. This is placed through the nostril to the stomach or directly through the abdomen
into the stomach to provide extra nutrition and calories for the child.
Recovery from a SCI requires long-term hospitalization and rehabilitation. An interdisciplinary
team of doctors, nurses, therapists (physical, occupations, or speech), and other
specialists work to medically manage your child for pain control, monitor the heart
function, blood pressure, body temperature, nutritional status, bladder and bowel
function, and attempt to control involuntary muscle shaking (spasticity). Rehabilitation
focuses on preventing muscle wasting, and contractures, and works to retrain your
child to use other muscles, to aid in mobility and movement. Some of the important
chronic complications of SCI include pressure ulcers, also called bed sores, and pneumonia.
Lifelong considerations for a child with a SCI
A traumatic event that results in a SCI is devastating to the child and the family.
The health care team educates the family after hospitalization and rehabilitation
on how to best care for their child at home and outlines specific clinical problems
that require immediate medical attention by the child's doctor.
The disabled child requires a focus on maximizing his or her capabilities at home
and in the community. Positive reinforcement will encourage him or her to strengthen
his or her self-esteem and promote independence.
A child with a SCI requires frequent medical evaluations and diagnostic testing following
hospitalization and rehabilitation to monitor his or her progress.